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Penny Whistle in D

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Continued from product description on Folk Instruments' Page Three...

Historical Background: The whistle is a member of the family of woodwind instruments called "fipple flutes." A fipple is a wood block in the mouthpiece that constricts air to make sounds. Early whistles were made from animal bones or baked clay. Early whistles were called "vertical flutes" until the 17th century when fipple flutes were named "flageolets." These flageolets had four finger holes on the front and two thumb holes on the back.

Today's tin whistle (or penny whistle) belongs to a group of musical instruments called flageolets. (Another member is the recorder.) The terms "whistle flutes" and "fipple flutes" refer to the method of sound production and are also used to designate flageolets. Again, the fipple is a wood block or clay plug that is inserted into the mouthpiece. Sometimes a wood whistle was carved so that the fipple was part of the mouthpiece. The fipples found in ancient bone pipes from the Middle Ages were made of clay.

It is the fipple that gives whistles, pipes, and flutes their distinctive sounds. A small space is created between the edge of the fipple and the inside wall of the instrument. When the player blows into the mouthpiece, the fipple compresses the air stream to make a sound. By covering (or closing) a combination of finger and thumb holes, a musical note is produced.

Whistles are thought to have originated in ancient China around 5,000 ago. By the 11th century, whistles could be found in Europe. There is evidence, according to medieval literature, of whistle players in Ireland. Whistles made from the bones of birds have been uncovered in Dublin that date back to the Viking era of the 12th century. Over time, whistles have been given many names. Besides fipple flute, flageolet, and vertical flute, other names are "faedan," "feadóg stáin" (an Irish name), "penny whistle," "tin flute," and "tin whistle."

To Irish musicians, this instrument has a noble pedigree in the history of Irish music. Besides the 12-century bone whistles found in the oldest Norman quarter of Dublin, other types of whistle flutes are mentioned in ancient Irish tales and the laws of ancient Irish society. One such Irish tale gives the account of Ailen, a chief of the Tuatha de Danann fairy tribe, who carried out his annual November vengeance by using his feadan to cast a spell of sleep over the inhabitants of the High King's palace at Tara. A description found in the Brehon Laws from the King of Ireland's court in the 3rd century mentions musicians playing feadans.

A 12th-century poem about the pre-Christian Fair of Carman also mentions players of the "cuisle" (pipe) among the entertainers. Despite an obvious disapproval by the poet for the "cuisleannach" (players of the cuisle), a more complimentary view is given by the 12th-century compiler of "Acallam na Senorach" when comparing the cuisle's timbre to the sound of a maiden's speech.

An interesting reference occurs in a poem found in the ancient "Teach Miodhchuarta." This poem recounts the seating plan of the royal feasts at Tara. Cuisleannach are seated with the same respect and status as fishermen, jugglers, shield-makers, shoemakers, smiths, and trumpeters (to name a few). At these royal feasts, cuisleannach received the pig's thigh as their allotted portion.

According to 19th-century experts on the ancient Irish society, both the feadan (also called "feadóg") and cuisle (also called "cuiseach") were made by hollowing out plant stalks. Cane and elder was used as well as certain wild grasses and reeds. Hence, another meaning for feadan is "a hollow stick."

Medieval stone-high crosses of the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries suggest Irish vertical flutes to have been straight and sometimes slightly curved at the bottom. They also had narrow, conical bores that widened toward the bottom and are estimated to be from 14 to 24 inches in length. (Today's manufactured tin whistles in the key of B flat are 14-3/4 inches long.) And while this key is pitched two whole tones below concert pitch, there is little reliable information about the scales and pitch resources of the feadan and cuisle. It is possible that harmonics or overblown notes may have been used since this was usually the case with similar flutes throughout the world.

End-blown pipes found in Somerset and Monmouthshire, England, are thought to be representative of the general type used in British Isles during the Medieval Period. Both these pipes were made of deer bone and have five front finger holes. One has a rear thumb hole and the other has two. One pipe has a range of 1-1/2 octaves and the other 2-1/2 octaves. By the way, these pipes were restored to a playable condition, and it was found that both pipes give diatonic scales (same as today's tin whistle). Therefore, it is conceivable that sophisticated music could be played on ancient bone pipes.

The tin whistles we know today have six finger holes. These began to appear in England during the beginning of the 19th century. The first tin whistle was made in 1843 by Robert Clark, a poor English farm laborer and amateur musician who played a wooden whistle. Clark wanted to copy his wooden whistle and decided to use tinplate instead of wood. The fipple in the mouthpiece was still made of wood, which he cut and shaped with a handmade saw.

Clark was forced to leave his employer after having been unjustly accused of dishonesty. In need of a way to make a living, Clark decided to mass produce his new whistle. So, he loaded his tools and materials into a hand barrow and walked with his son from Suffolk to Manchester. Along the way, Clark stopped at village markets, set up his "hand barrow workshop" to show people how he made his whistles and sell them. When a crowd gathered around, he would stop working and begin playing songs to entertain the audience. Clark's most popular song was "Danny Boy," and it is said that an entire marketplace would stop doing business to listen as Clark played this piece.

When he arrived in Manchester, Clark began manufacturing his tin whistles. In the years that followed, Clark's whistles became world famous under the name "Penny Whistle." No one is certain just how this name came into existence. The name "penny whistle" may have come about because Clark originally sold his tin whistles for a penny. Then again, this name may have been coined (excuse the pun) by Victorian street musicians who were given pennies by passersby for playing tin whistle songs. The company Clark started over 150 years ago, The Clark Tin Whistle Company, continues to produce tin whistles today.

During the 1950s, a straight, cylindrical tube with a plastic mouthpiece was introduced. This design was an alternative to the traditional conical bore of whistles, such as the Clark tin whistle. Twenty years later, Bernard Overton of Overton Whistles started making the "low-D whistle." The popularity of this whistle soon grew and remains to this day as a highly desirable wind instrument.

Fun Fact: The world-renowned flautist, James Galway, learned to play music on a Clark Penny Whistle.

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Penny Whistle in D
Penny Whistle in D
Item Number 5301

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