Tutti Fluti

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Tabor Pipes or One-Hand Flutes

These are a specific type of Duct flutes. They normally have only one thumbhole and two fingerholes, placed low on the tube, but by combining these with the first few overtones, a diatonic, and with some examples a chromatic range of a twelfth or more is practicable. The reason for their design was so that the other hand could play a rhythmic accompaniment on a drum or other instrument.

The pipe and tabor (as the small drum commonly used was called) was a standard one-man dance band from the European Middle Ages into the Renaissance, and it is one that survives in southern Europe to this day and, with variants to which we will come later, in South America. Our earliest examples in the iconography come from the thirteenth century, with a misericord in Exeter Cathedral dated to 1240 and in the manuscript of the Cántigas de Santa Maria in Spain a few decades later. Thereafter they appear widely in carvings and manuscripts throughout Europe and there are many references to their use in documents of all sorts, including court records, thus showing that their use was by no means confined to the peasantry.

The three surviving illustrated manuscripts of the Cántigas, songs in praise of the Virgin Mary, traditionally ascribed to Alfonso X, king of Castile and known as El Sabio, The Wise (1221-84) are today in the Escorial Library near Madrid and in Florence. The most important for our purposes, variously known as Escorial j.b.2 or B.I.2, is illustrated with 40 miniatures of musicians from the three cultures then co-existing in Spain, the Moors, the Jews, and the Christians, playing a very large variety of instruments, most but not all clearly deriving from the Muslim cultures of North Africa and the Levant, as we can tell from survivals and from local records from those areas. However, there is no known parallel from those areas for the pipe and tabor, and it would seem that this combination may well have been indigenous to Europe and perhaps to Spain, as we shall see shortly.

The way that the pipe and tabor works is by starting the range from the second partial, which we often write as D, followed by opening the finger- and thumbholes to obtain E, F or F sharp (modern tabor pipes vary between the two), and G, covering all three again for the third partial A, with two fingerholes for B and C sharp, all covered for the upper D, and so on up. However, the two earliest illustrations that we have, Exeter and the Cántigas show the player with his fingers in the middle of the tube, not near the end as on all later tabor pipes, and this suggests a link with the Catalan folk one-hand flute, the fluviol. This also is fingered in the middle of the tube but it has two extra holes, one for the ring-finger on the front and the other for the upper-side of the little finger at the back of the tube. It seems possible that an instrument such as this may have been the origin of the tabor pipe, which was later simplified by moving the holes down towards the end of the tube and taking advantage of the overblown partials.

We know what the tabor pipe could have played, and it covers the range of most dance tunes surviving from the period, but not until 1588, when Thoinot Arbeau published his dance manual Orchésographie, do we have music specifically printed for it. Arbeau’s real name was Jean Tabourot, the surname, or as common then the ascribation, for ‛surnames’ were usually an identification by trade or other feature, strongly suggesting that he was a pipe and tabor player himself (‛piper’ usually then referred to a bagpiper, ‘taborer’ to a pipe and tabor player). Arbeau illustrates the steps for all the common dances of his day, and in many cases he provides the musical accompaniment, while he also clearly describes the pipe and tabor and its use in his text.

As we said above, pipe and tabor survive today in southern Europe, especially in Provence, the Basque country and Navarre as well as other areas of Spain and Portugal. In Provence a much larger tabor is used than elsewhere, the tambourin, some two feet deep from head to head, and a well-known imitation of its sound can be heard in Bizet’s L’Arlésienne music, though quicker than any taborer could play it – when used for dance music it is played at half Bizet’s speed or even slower. In Navarre, a string drum, the txun-txun among several other names, was often used instead of a normal drum, a long wooden body with four or so heavy gut strings running down it, tuned to the tonic and dominant of the music, struck across all the strings simultaneously, with a wooden stick to provide a rhythmic harmonic drone. Examples of its use come, for example, in many of Rameau’s ballet scores.

With both these a tabor pipe of fairly standard pattern is used. But in the Basque country a rather larger pipe is used, the txistu, pronounced like chistu, with a foot ring for the ring finger to help hold it by so as to free the little finger to partially stop the open end of the pipe. By doing so, sharps and flats can be obtained, and the txistu is a fully chromatic tabor pipe and one with the most elaborate range of music. Unusually, and unlike in all medieval and folk illustrations, the tabor used with it is struck upwards on the lower head with a very fluent technique, quite different from the simple rhythms illustrated by Arbeau. For some music, a second rather longer pipe is used with it, along with a side-drummer. Traditionally the txistu is made of a heavy dark wood such as ebony or African blackwood, but like many others today, some are made of plastic, particularly those made for beginners.

As with so many other instruments of the sixteenth century, the pipe and tabor was taken to the Americas by the Conquistadors and it survives there to this day, in Ecuador with a small cane pipe with a neatly cut figure-8 mouth, but further south with different forms of pipe. The pipe that we know, being played by many folk and early music groups today, is replaced by either a panpipe or by a single-reed pipe, sometimes with a cow-horn bell.

The European tabor pipe today has a number of forms, both folk and reproduction, but all are short as they were in most illustrations of the period. Praetorius shows a longer form with a long mouthpipe running up the side, and two surviving pipes, found in the wreck of Henry VIII’s warship The Mary Rose, which sank in 1545, are very much longer than any known save in some Flemish woodcuts of that period. These are some 80cm long and require a very long stretch of the left arm to reach the fingerholes (almost every contemporary illustration shows the pipe played with the left hand and the tabor with the right). Since one of these has a maker’s name (and a shorter one also found in the ship has the famous double-plume or rabbit’s-foot mark), it is clear that these were serious instruments and not just made casually by a player.

Finally we come to a very large variant, so large, up to two metres long or even more, that it has to be played with both hands, for the fingers of one hand cannot stretch sufficiently to cover the three holes. This is the Slovakian fujara, traditionally played by shepherds to entertain themselves and the sheep but now by many folk musicians, both locally and elsewhere. A mouthpipe runs up the side of the instrument to a duct at the top. In the traditional music, flourishes of high overtones, far more than are available on pipes of normal length, obtainable due to the much greater tube length, open and punctuate melodies played in the lower ranges. Many urban makers are producing these instruments today.

© Jeremy Montagu, 2018

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