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The Rauschpfeife

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The rauschpfeife (also often spelt rauschfife) is a musical instrument of the woodwind family from the European Renaissance. It is known to have been played in various courts and pageants across Europe in the middle 16th Century, and original consorts of instruments from that time survive in museums in Berlin and Prague.

In England Henry VIII was a great aficianado of the instrument: the instrument is listed in court inventories of the time, and Henry himself is said to have been accompanied just about everywhere by a consort of rauschpfeifers ready to play at the royal command. 

The rauschpfeife as an instrument was revived as part of the Early Music movement, and new examples are now made by several makers. My soprano rauschpfeife was made by Eric Moulder in 2001 and bought through the wonderful Early Music Shop of Bradford, England.

The rauschpfeife is a double-reed instrument, like a shawm or modern-day oboe: but unlike those instruments the reed is not directly placed in the player’s mouth. Instead the reed is enclosed by a cover or wind-cap, and blown through a slot in the top of the wind-cap. With sufficient breath pressure the reed vibrates and the instrument sounds.

The same wind-cap design is found in other Renaissance woodwind instruments such as the crumhorn and cornamuse, and survives today in the Scottish Highland bagpipe practice chanter and some Asian reed instruments. The modern harmonica or mouth organ also works on the same principle.

The rauschpfeife is however distinctive amongst the Renaissance windcap instruments in that the bore of the instrument is conical. This conical bore allows the reed to be over-blown to give several useable notes in the second octave, thus increasing the compass of the instrument beyond the octave-and-a-note of the cornamuse and bagpipe. The conical bore, combined with the size and thickness of the reed, also means that the rauschpfeife is phenomenally loud!

Rauschpfeife fingering is very similar to recorder fingering. The primary art in playing rauschpfeife is in maintaining the constant breath pressure to keep the reed vibrating, and then in constantly regulating and adjusting that pressure to keep the instrument playing in tune. The required breath pressure is very strong compared to flute and recorder: people prone to high blood pressure and/or dizzy spells may well be advised to look elsewhere if considering taking up the rauschpfeife.

The name Rauschpfeife is thought to be derived from the Old German ‘rusch’ (meaning ‘rush’, as in grass), giving us ‘reed-pipe’. Other translators suggest 'roaring pipe', and the [now defunct] online translation engine Babelfish gave the wonderful suggestion of ‘intoxication whistle’, which I like a lot.

The instrument is also known as the Schreierpfeife or Schryari, perhaps referring to the screaming tone of the instrument (schreien is translated as ‘scream’ or ‘cry’), and are referred to as such in Praetorius’ musical instrument catalogue Syntagma Musicum of 1619. Indeed some researchers (and the entry in the Grove music dictionary) suggest that 'rauschpfeife' might sometimes have been used as a generic administrative word for 'loud music', rather than necessarily as the name for a specific instrument.

The name rauschpfeife was and is also used as the name of a particularly loud and strident voicing on the pipe organ.