Of all woodwind categories, the flute seems to suffer the most from confusing nomenclature. Before the nineteenth century, "flute," by any of its variant ethnic European names or spellings, usually referred to the vertical instrument, i.e., the recorder. The transverse model then frequently required some modifying word indicating its horizontal nature such as Flauto traverso (or just traverso) in Italian, or Querflöte in German. Speaking of German, the transverse flute often carried that name tag, as well, for some reason not easily explained. In England and early America it was often called the "German flute," and even in France, where the instrument may have enjoyed its earliest important developments, credit was sometimes bestowed on the Germans by calling the instrument la flute d'Allemagne.
Further confusion arises from the application of "range" terminology for flutes. The recorders, for example, were designated by size as they relate to each other, but in relation to vocal range, they are an octave higher than their designation implies. The bass is really an alto, and the tenor is really a soprano, and so on, with yet others in keys other than the usual C or F being distinguished by such colorful nomenclature as "voice flute" (a tenor, which is really a soprano, in D), or "sixth flute" (a soprano, actually a super sopranino, also in D). The transverse instruments also have a tradition of terminology that is more fanciful than descriptive. What is now called the alto flute, which usually is in G and sounds a fourth lower than written, was often called the "bass" flute. Like the bass recorder, it is really an alto voice in its lowest register. Early-twentieth-century catalogs from the famous English flute makers Rudall Carte & Co., for example, offered that G instrument as the "bass." Later catalogs from that house added a larger instrument a fifth lower, in C, calling it a "bass," while at the same time retaining their G instrument as a "bass." Yet another designation appears in one of Dayton C. Miller's trade catalogs. It arrived with a flauto basso in C (DCM 0679) that he purchased in 1926 from the Milanese maker Gino Bartoli. The catalog listed the G instruments (an alto in modern terminology) as the Contralto (od Sol d'Amore), suggesting it would be suitable as a flute d'amore, an instrument usually pitched in A.
Rudall Carte & Co. offered their G alto as a "bass," and it makes sense that something else would be called the "alto," namely their instrument a minor third above it, in B-flat. Such a B-flat flute is not far removed from earlier instruments one half-tone lower, in A, which were usually known as flutes d'amore or ethnic variants of that. At various times the terms "concert" and d'amore meant something to the flutist, including key, but "concert flute" is now rarely used to describe the principal C instrument. To add to the confusion, well into the 1930s, Rudall Carte & Co. used the term "concert flutes" (and piccolos) to indicate their most simple (or old fingering) system and least expensive models. Those of higher quality and cost were labeled "Modern Flutes" and included six basic models, one of which was, in fact, a fancier cylindrical bore old-system model. The other five included three variants of the Boehm system.
While one Rudall Carte & Co. catalog offered their so-called alto flute in B-flat, another of the company's catalogs, the List of Instruments and Accessories for Flute Bands, offered so-called B-flat flutes, along with others in flat keys. To explain the apparent similarity in name only between Rudall Carte's "alto flute in B-flat" and "B-flat flute," it is necessary to point out that the latter refers to either of two instruments actually in A-flat. The reasons are as follows.
The United Kingdom is well-known for its highly organized brass bands in which all but the percussion and bass trombone are treated as treble clef transposing instruments. Less well known are its drum and flute bands that use a similar scoring concept. These bands comprise, along with snare, bass drum, and cymbals, only flutes in flat keys. However, unlike the brass band instruments in flat keys which transpose as expected, the E-flat, B-flat, and F flutes of the flute band are actually in D-flat, A-flat, and E-flat respectively, and their parts are therefore transposed as such. For example, an E-flat cornet sounds an E-flat when reading a written C; but an E-flat band flute reading the same C sounds D-flat. However, the whole-step misnomer has at times been applied to flutes in any key, a practice which is a matter more of tradition than logic.
All European woodwinds share in their oldest forms the common feature of having two basic fingerhole groupings of three holes for each hand, with the left hand usually covering the three at the top. However, all but the transverse flutes needed and therefore received an extra tonehole or more at either or both ends. In the case of the cornett(o) and some other early wind instruments the required extra hole was covered by the thumb at the upper end, while for the clarinet and recorders extra holes were required at both ends. In all cases the first hole originally added beneath the lower three extends the range a whole step below. For some instruments, such as the oboe and some recorders, the pitch produced when that seventh (lowest) hole and all others are closed usually defines the instrument's key. Opening the toneholes in succession, starting with the lowest, and using a few necessary forked fingerings, will roughly outline a major scale. If that lowest pitch is C, the instrument may therefore be defined as being in the key of C, although this system is clearly arbitrary. In the case of the bassoon and the clarinet in its chalumeau or lower register, the pitch resulting from the closure of only the upper three-hole unit defines the key. If it sounds C, the instrument is termed a C or concert pitch instrument. Recorders combine those concepts. A recorder in F, for example, is considered to be in F because of its lowest sounding pitch, F. However, as in the case of the bassoon, which could also be termed an F (or G) instrument in theory, closing the upper three-hole grouping produces C, and both instruments are usually and arbitrarily treated as being in C.
Early transverse flutes and fifes are unique in that no whole step, seventh hole extension beneath the lower three-hole grouping or thumbhole above the upper three-hole grouping was provided or needed. The lowest pitch available with all six toneholes covered is usually regarded as a written D above middle C, no matter what its actual pitch. Opening the six toneholes in succession then yields roughly a written D major scale. If that actual written D sounds D, the instrument is then a C instrument. However, such C flutes were often termed D flutes due to the basic scale centered on the original lowest written note, D.
The practice of designating the pitch of the flute and fife one tone higher than the actual key lasted into the twentieth century, especially among wind bands. This practice coexisted with the traditional system and so one may find a military band D-flat flute part calling for either a D-flat or an E-flat instrument. The 1925 Lyon & Healy catalog, for example, uses both forms for piccolos, such as "in C (formerly known as D)," or "in D-flat (formerly known as E-flat)." Even with extended tubing and keywork added beneath low D, the whole-step misnomer continued out of habit in the flute tradition. Whatever the key nomenclature, a glance at the context of any part will disclose which instrument was intended. A band score in E-flat major, for example, which calls for an E-flat flute or piccolo whose part is written in D major is therefore a D-flat flute part.
The transposing flute tradition is further documented in eighteenth-century English vocal music published for amateurs. Customarily, an elegantly engraved and illustrated single page of music contained a sparsely figured or unfigured bass. A flutist, if any, could play with the treble line if the instrument, usually a recorder, were in C or played as if being in C. At the same time, the melody line would be printed again at the bottom of the page in a different key and designated "For the Flute" to facilitate or avoid transposition for a player using an instrument not in C.
Vertical flutes (recorders and flageolets) were popular and affordable for parlor music-makers, and they were made in various keys as evident from the "For the Flute" additions. Though not specified, those transpositions haphazardly called for instruments in D, E-flat, F, and G. The example shown, The Syren of the Stage, is at face value transposed for a D instrument such as the so-called voice-flute, a tenor (actually treble) recorder in that key. However, "For the Flute" meant whatever was available, perhaps including flageolets in various keys. The most specific designation in the Bickham examples calls for the "German or Common Flute," i.e., the transverse flute or the recorder.
This Syren of the Stage example also reveals an entertaining lack of editing and perhaps the publisher's or copperplate engraver's emphasis on illustration quality over musical notation accuracy or good spacing. Although correctly transposed for a D instrument, the engraver located the key signature flat sign on the C space instead of the B line. The "For the Flute" tight spacing was common for these publications and surely presented an added sight-reading challenge in candlelight.
Another kind of confusion in flute terminology surrounds the so-called fife. In common parlance, as far as members of the fife corps or flute band are concerned, the terms "fife" and "flute" can mean the same thing. Indeed, the so-called B-flat flute (the higher of two sizes designated as being in "B-flat") has frequently been called the fife in casual usage among British flute bands. That particular instrument, which is actually in A-flat and written a minor sixth below sounding pitch, is usually the lead voice in the flute band. Some of the smaller or youth bands use only that high "B-flat (A-flat)" flute and, in effect, become fife-and-drum corps, although their "fifes" are in fact flutes, which, unlike the fife, are equipped with at least a simple key system (see "Fife vs. Band Flute").
Some of the United Kingdom flute bands having the full complement of flute parts have referred to them selves as "Drum and Fife" bands. A good example is Saint Kevin's Drum and Fife Band in Ireland. An early 1920s Rudall Carte & Co. catalog includes a photograph of Saint Kevin's showing that the manufacturer had splendidly equipped the ensemble of more than forty musicians with the full array of band flutes and percussion. In such matters, the musical scholar must, like the folklorist, honor and document the tradition, while at the same time seeking some terminological clarification. In this spirit, it is worth pursuing or formulating a possible best definition of "fife" and "flute" or "flute band."