Rather than referring to a specific instrument, it is more accurate to think the term “flageolet” as referring to a family of different instruments. Here is a brief description of the most common members of the flageolet family. For convenience, the instruments have been grouped into three: the French flageolets, the English flageolets and the multiple flageolets.
French flageolets are the classical instruments of the flageolet family. They are distinguished by their unique pattern of finger-holes: 4 holes on the front and 2 on the back. When the holes are released, one by one, they produce the unusual scale of A, B, C, D, E, G, A. Being the oldest instruments in the family, they can be found in great variety, from the diminutive Bird flageolet, to the complex Boehm–system flageolet.
Most French flageolets are pitched in A which means that when all the holes are covered, the note produced is an A. As with the descant recorder and other high woodwind instruments, the music is notated an octave lower than it sounds. There is, however, some debate as to whether music for the instrument should be notated exactly an octave lower, or whether it should be transposed down an extra perfect 5th so that it is written with the lowest note as a “D”:
Professional musicians preferred the “normal” notation as the flageolet part did not have to be transposed in order to make it fit in with other instruments. Amateurs, however, tended to prefer the “transposed” notation for two reasons: they usually played unaccompanied and most popular music for woodwind instruments was published for instruments pitched in D rather than A.
This is the oldest and simplest instrument in the family and was the version played by Samuel Pepys and Thomas Greeting. The instrument, which is about 8'' or 20cm long, consists of a recorder-style mouthpiece (i.e. the player blows directly into the wind-way which directs the airflow onto the fipple) and a keyless body.
These are the Flageolets with which most people are familiar and are about 14'' or 35cm long. An ivory mouthpiece or beak leads into a conical airway which helps to compensate for any lack of breath control on the part of the player. The wind-way feeds into a barrel (as on a clarinet) which sometimes contains a sponge to help absorb moisture. Below this are usually two parts: the top-joint, containing the fipple and the bottom joint into which the tone-holes are drilled. These flageolets were made with up to 6 keys (with three adding chromatic notes on the bottom joint and two trill-keys and a speaker-key on the top joint). The most popular version appears to have been the 5-key model which had all three keys on the top joint but only two on the bottom. However, endless debate raged between players as to which version was the best.
The Boehm–System French flageolet was the most complex flageolet ever made. It was an attempt to combine the traditional French-flageolet with the Boehm key-work that had become popular on most other woodwind instruments. In order to improve intonation and simplify fingering (cross-fingering is almost eliminated), thirteen keys were added to a traditional instrument. Two of these allow bottom Gs and G♯s to be played without the player resorting to inserting his or her little finger into the bell, and a second speaker key is also present (which helps increase the range at the top of the instrument). The rest of the key-work allows chromatic notes to be played without cross-fingering and adds extra tone-holes which help optimise the sound. Finally, a hook was added to the bottom of the instrument into which the played inserted a finger to help support the flageolet.
Bird Flageolets are small French flageolets which were used to teach caged birds to sing. They were usually pitched in D, a 4th above the normal French flageolet, and were about 7'' or 18cm long. However, sizes and keys could vary. Most were constructed to look like miniature normal French flageolets, often in just one piece, and occasionally made entirely out of ivory. Some were also made as recorder–style instruments, for ease of manufacture.
This is a very unusual type of flageolet. Indeed, the example, made by David Claude Joseph in the collection of the Cité de la Musique, Paris (E.641) may be unique. The instrument is not as complex as the multiple English flageolets; the central pipe is a standard French flageolet with the other two bodies providing a simple drone.
English flageolets began to be produced towards the end of the 18th Century by combining the traditional shape of a French flageolet with the fingering of a 6-hole flute. This made them far easier to play for those used to other woodwind instruments as the fingering is very similar to that of the flute, fife, recorder and even the clarinet. Another advantage was that the instruments were usually pitched in D, a perfect 5th below the French flageolet. This eliminated the transposition problems associated with the French flageolet, as it was possible to play music written for instruments in D without transposing.
Slightly longer than standard French flageolets, at about 15'' or 38cm, these English flageolets are the standard version of the instrument. They have the same parts as the French flageolet, with an ivory beak, conical wind-way, barrel and top and bottom joints, although the quality is often not as great (very frequently the conical wind-way and barrel are made as one piece). When the six holes are released, one at a time, the notes produced form a D major scale: D, E, F♯, G, A, B, C♯. Key-work is almost always present, and is exclusively added to the bottom joint in order to aid playing chromatic notes. The most popular models had either 1, 5 or 6 keys added.
A number of makers added a thumb-hole to their English flageolets which had the aim of making the C easier to play. It could also be “pinched” (as on a recorder) in order to make the top octave of the instrument speak more easily. For some reason this addition was much derided by almost all authors, who frequently stated that it was useless and that the hole be “stopt with a piece of cork”. One more sensible suggestion was that it should be half-filled with wood, so that when the hole was uncovered, it acted as if it was pinched. This would have made the playing of the top octave easier as the hole would always be pinched to the correct degree when required.
These are English flageolets which were invented in order to improve the standard English flageolet. The only main difference between them and a normal English flageolet is the highest hole is a little further down the instrument. This means that when all the holes are uncovered, the instrument produces a C rather than a C♯. This reduces some of the cross-fingering required to play the instrument.
These instruments were produced with the aim of making flute music playable by those who could not, or did not wish to, master the embouchure of the flute. They were essentially English Flageolets pitched an octave lower than normal and with the ivory beak projecting out of the side of the barrel so that the instrument had the appearance of being blown transversely, as a flute. Frequently, the flageolet head-joint was removable and could be replaced by a normal flute head, to turn the instrument into a true flute.
A simpler variation on the Flute flageolet, these instruments consisted of a fife body and interchangeable flageolet and fife heads. Often the flageolet head was in the style of a recorder, but some can be found in the style of a standard flageolet.
Multiple Flageolets were first invented in the early 1800s. William Bainbridge and John Parry produced the first set in 1805 and the Bainbridge family continued to manufacture them until 1855. In the early years, vast numbers of different styles were produced, before the Bainbridge model became a standard.
The Bainbridge double flageolet was designed in order to facilitate playing simple tunes in major thirds. The left had operates the top four holes of a standard English flageolet (with a thumb-hole) whilst the right hand operates the bottom four of another. A number of essential keys, particularly on the right hand flageolet, allow each hand to play more notes than would be possible with a keyless instrument. Two “wind-cutter” keys allow one flageolet to be silenced so that the other can be played solo.