Reconstructing the “fifres” of the Grande Écurie

Veröffentlicht: 01.01.2009     Autor/in: Boaz Berney


La Grande Écurie du Roi


Boaz Berney, "Reconstructing the “fifres” of the Grande Écurie". Forschungsportal Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, 2009. (Abgerufen am TT MM JJJJ)


The text of this article is provided under the terms of the Creative Commons License CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0

Fig. 1: Fife fingering chart from Mersenne’s Hamonie Universelle, Photo: B. Berney.

A second fingering chart for the fife can be found in Diderot’s Encyclopédie (figure 2). [5] This would have been an ideal source for reconstructing the fifes of the Grande Écurie, as it is both from France and from the right time frame. However, like Mersenne, this source contains too many anomalies to be of much use.

Fig. 2: Fife fingering chart from Diderot’s Encyclopédie, Photo: Boaz Berney.

At first glance, this is a fingering chart showing the range of an instrument of two octaves, however, it is unclear if it is really meant to be read in French violin clef (which would be quite unusual for this date), or in normal treble clef. The first fingering, would indeed play an F natural on a baroque or renaissance type flute, however, the next fingering would sound an e and the one after that an f#, which would point that the fingering chart is indeed noted in G2 (table 1). Even if we accept this premise, which seems to be the most likely one, there are still too many open holes on the chart to make sense. Fingering 1234-6 would not give the fundament of any known flute, and neither would the fingering for the same note an octave above –34-6 seem very logical. As with Mersenne’s table, the fingerings for entire the second octave of the instrument start with a first open hole, which again, does not seem to work on any flute that we were able to try. If, as with Mersenne, one presumes that the first hole should be closed for the second octave, many of the resulting fingerings look like they might work on a cylindrical bored flute, like that of Mersenne. Even then, there are some strange looking fingerings, like those for the second octave a, c and d. Unfortunately, there seem to be too many anomalies in this table to make it practical for a reconstruction.

Table 1: A reconstruction of Diderot’s chart © B. Berney.

A more useful chart for the fife is one drawn by Giles Gibbs Jr in His Little Book for the Fife (1777) (fig. 3). [6] The chart gives fingerings for nearly two octaves, from d to c’’, probably meant as the top two octaves of the instrument. Interestingly enough, the bottom octave is not shown, either because the fingerings are simple and were obvious to the player, or because the bottom octave was not really of much use on the fife.

Fig. 3: Fife fingering chart from Giles Gibbs Jr: Little Book for the Fife (1777), Foto: B. Berney.

This is the first source that clearly shows baroque fingerings for the second octave a and b, and we can presume that it is meant for a conical instrument. Although it is noted in D, it is more likely that it sounded a fourth higher, as no D fifes from the period are known, while G instruments were more common. As the fife would have been played alone or with the drum, there is no reason to notate the actual sounding pitch rather than the fingering with which the player would be familiar.

Another fingering chart can be found in the Pfeifer Ordonnanz für die Eidgenöffischen Truppen published in Zürich in 1819. [7] Although this is a later source, it is an interesting one as it is very precise, giving full chromatic fingerings for a fife with a range of two and a half octaves (figure 4). The chart gives baroque fingerings for the second octave a and b, indicating a cylindrical instrument.

Fig. 4: Fife fingering chart from Pfeifer Ordonnanz für die Eidgenöffischen Truppen, Zürich 1819, Foto: Alex Haefeli.

The “Altenklingen” flute, A-V: SAM 1028

Fig. 5: A-V: SAM 1028 and its matching case, SAM 1029.

This unstamped flute (figure 5), originally from Schloss Altenklingen in Switzerland, is the only remaining flute of a group of four instruments that used belong in its original case, SAM 1029. The instrument and its case are similar to flutes stamped “$” found in the collections of the Graz Landeszeughaus and the Museo Civico in Merano. [8] The Graz instruments, which survived in a military context, probably represent the type of instruments played together with drum in the sixteenth century.

Based on the similarity of this flute and its case to the “$” instruments, we can assume that this flute is indeed a military instrument. It is a small flute in g at A=415Hz, and has thin walls and rings on each end, serving a double purpose of decoration and protecting its thin ends from splitting. A reconstruction of this instrument shows that it plays very well with ordinary renaissance fingerings, and has a range of two and a half octaves.

Three flutes by “Deterdingen”, S- Stockholm: AM. 084933-8

Fig. 6: Four of the six surviving flutes in the Stockholm Armée Museum (from top to bottom: 084938, 084933, 084935 and 084936), Photo: B. Berney.

These little-known flutes (figure 6) survived as part of the Swedish State Trophy Collection, now housed in the Stockholm Armée Museum. This collection contains about two hundred musical instruments, predominantly kettledrums, but also including some twenty-five Russian zurnas (shawm-like double reed instruments), a couple of field drums and these six flutes. [9] The collection itself can be dated back to the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, a period when Sweden was an important military power involved in succession of conflicts, from the Thirty Years War during the first half of the seventeenth century to the Great Northern War at the beginning of the eighteenth century.

The six surviving flutes in this collection are all cylindrical, renaissance-type instruments in d’, pitched around A=460Hz. Three flutes, nos. 084935, 084936 and 084937 are stamped “(three crowns)/Er. Deterdingen”. No information was found about this maker, although the three crowns would hint at a Swedish origin. It is unclear how instruments with a Swedish emblem ended up in the trophy collection, unless they were re-gained trophies. The two flutes nos. 084933 and 084934 are anonymous, and are quite similar to one another. The last flute, 084938, has ornamental rings similar to those found on the Russian Zurnas in the collection, and can probably be associated with those instruments, all taken a battle in 1703.

A replica of the Deterdingen flutes show that these were extremely powerful instruments. It is easy to imagine this kind of flute playing in battle next to a drum, its thick walls and relatively large embouchure makes its sound loud and projecting. The replica has a range of more than two octaves with renaissance fingerings.

Fife by Sattler, D-Berlin: MIM 2714

Fife by Sattler, D-Berlin: MIM 2714

This fife, found in the Berlin Musikinstrumenten museum, is a much later instrument (figure 7). It was made by the Leipzig maker Carl Sattler (fl. a1788-p1796) in the late eighteenth century. [10] It is a small instrument in g’ at about A=460Hz representing the type of instrument made in Germany and Austria towards the last quarter of the century. Similar surviving instruments can be found several collections, including six in the Graz Landeszeughaus. [11]

Unlike the other two types of originals, this flute has a conical or a proto-conical bore, as can be seen in figure 8.

Fig. 8: bore graph of D-Berlin: MIM 2714, Photo: Berlin Musikinstrumenten museum.

Although the bore of this particular original is not very regular, as it has several repaired cracks which distort the original bore profile, the shape of the bore can be reconstructed (red line) and compared to similar bore dimensions found on the Graz flutes. [12] The bore is cylindrical for about the first third, much like an ordinary baroque flute, and narrows down right before the first finger hole. It stays more or less cylindrical until right after the last finger hole, and then opens up again. This type of bore, although much less conical then most flutes of the time, would enable the player to play the second octave with the same fingerings as the first.

Fig. 9: Philidor MS., p. 4: Lair des fifres ou hautbois, Photo: B. Berney.

Both pieces are similar to fife signals found in Thoinant Arbeau’s treatise, Orchésographie as well as in Byrd’s keyboard piece The fife and the droome[13] As Arbeau states, this kind of signal was improvised by fifers over a standard drum pattern in order to communicate different commands to the troops. From the similarity of these three sources, however it seems like this was becoming more or less a standard tune played by fifers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The first piece, Lair des fifres ou hautbois (figure 9) is a four-part setting of such a signal, while the second, Lordonanse pour le fifre (figure 10) has no accompaniment and is almost identical to the signal found in Arbeau’s treatise. Both pieces are a bit like antiquated oddities in the context of the Philidor manuscript and could represent the traditional repertoire played by Swiss fifers from as early as the sixteenth century. It is highly unlikely that fifes could have played all four parts of the Lair des fifres ou hautbois, but they could easily have played the top two parts. The piece is possibly a late seventeenth century arrangement of fife music for an oboe band, as oboes were slowly replacing the place of the fifes in the Grande Écurie. [14]

Fig. 10: Lordenanse pour le fifre from the Philidor manuscript, Photo: B. Berney.

A slightly later source for fife music can be found in Instruction des Tambours et Diverse Batteries de L’Ordenance, of 1754. This manuscript contains a collection of standard drum signals for infantry troupes (figure 11). [15] All are accompanied by a melody for Hautbois ou fiffre. Some of the signals found in the manuscript, like La Généralle de la garde Françoise can be found in the Philidor manuscript as well. Interestingly enough, while the drum signals are almost exactly the same, the patterns are accompanied by completely different melodies in the two different sources. La Généralle is followed by a four part Lair des hautbois fait par Philidor lainé in the Philidor manuscript, while it is accompanied by a slightly more modern sounding melody in the Instructions. This reinforces Arbeau’s statement that the drum patterns are much more important then the melody played on the fife to accompany them. It is therefore not inconceivable that the melodies would have been “updated” to something more fashionable over the course of the roughly fifty years separating the two sources.

Fig. 11: Instructions des Tambours et Diverse Batteries de l’Ordenançe, (1754) p. 5, Photo: B. Berney.

The nine fife tunes in this source are all in the key of g, seven in major and two in minor, and require a range of octave and a half (g-d’). Table 2 sums up the surviving repertoire discussed so far and the range of the different pieces.

Table 2: French eighteenth-century sources of fife music, © B. Berney.

As can be seen from the table, the pieces listed can, for the most part, be played on either a d or a g instrument up the octave. The only exception is Lair des fifres ou hautbois which would work better on a g instrument, as it is too high to be played on a d instrument up the octave or two low as written.

Fig. 12: Three of the fifers participating in the project and the copies. From front to back: Sarah van Cornewal, Richard Robinson and Sylvain Sartre, Photo: Boaz Berney.

[1] Bruce Haynes, The Eloquent Oboe: A History of the Hautboy form 1640–1760, Oxford 2006, pp. 54-53.


Sarah van Cornewal, “Les fifres dans les compagnies entre 1660 et 1761”, 2009, (accessed 01.12.2021). 


Marin Mersenne, Harmonie universelle, Paris 1636–1637, pp. 241-244.


See Ardal Powell, The Flute, New Haven 2002, pp. 57-59. Philippe Alain-Dupré, Mersenne et ses Contradictions, a paper given at the 2002 Basel Renaissance Flute days.


Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond D'Alembert (ed.), Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers.


Giles Gibbs, Jr.: His Little Book for the Fife, Ellington, Connecticut 1777. Edited from the original manuscript by Kate Van Winkle Keller, Hartford, 1977.


Johannes Bühler, Pfeifer Ordonnanz für die Eidgenöffischen Truppen, Zürich, 1819.


For a fuller discussion of the “$” instruments see: Boaz Berney “Renaissance Transverse Flutes: A Re-examination of the Surviving Instruments” in: Musique de Joye: Proceedings of the International Symposium on Renaissance Flute and Recorder Consort, Utrecht, 2003, pp 64-65. The Graz instruments are described in Georg Stradner, Die Musikinstrumente in Steirmärkischen Landeszeughaus in Graz, Graz 1976.  A drawing of the Merano flute is in Filadelfio Puglisi: The Renaissance Transverse Flutes in Italy, Firenze (S.P.E.S) 1995, pp. 85-87.


Hans Riben, The Musical Instruments in the Swedish State Trophy Collection in In Hoc Signo Vinces: A Presentation of The Swedish State Trophy Collection, Halmstad 2006, p. 149-158.


William Waterhouse, The Langwill Index, p. 345. I am grateful to Björn Kempf of the Berlin Musikinstrumentenmuseum for providing me with photos and measurements of this instrument.


Georg Stradner, Die Musikinstrumente in Steirmärkischen Landeszeughaus in Graz, Graz 1976, pp. 15-17.


ibid. The average bore of the Graz fifes has a maximum of 13.5mm at the top, and a minimum of 11.5-12.5 at the bottom.


Thoinot Arbeau, Orchésographie et traicte en forme de dialogue…, Langres 1588. William Byrd, The Battle MB94.  Modern ed. in William Byrd: Keyboard Music I, ed. A. Brown, MB, xxvii (1969, rev. 2/1976).


See Bruce Haynes, The Eloquent Oboe: A History of the Hautboy from 1640-1760, Oxford 2007, pp. 53-54.


Marguery [père]: Instructions des tambours et diverses batteries de l'ordonnance, S.I.n.d. (gravé par Melle [Marie-Charlotte] Vendôme) 1754.