It’s often said about Vivaldi that he wrote the same concerto some five hundred times. Well, I remember from my rock days that something strikingly similar was said about Status Quo, that they essentially rewrote the same song ad nauseam. The thing is, Vivaldi somehow remains enjoyable for most of those concertos. The vivacity and energy and harmonic movement of a Vivaldi concerto is so infectious. Status quo’s music plods along with the same three chords, and always with the same rhythmic pattern, the blues shuffle: dum da dum da, dum da dum da. Status Quo do the bare minimum needed to be interesting. Three chords are the fewest needed to create harmonic tension, and the standard blues pattern is all you need to keep a dance rhythm. Vivaldi expanded the possibilities of the concerto, whether it be his excited and quick-changing harmonic rhythms, his melodic inventions (for example his use of compound intervals), his unexpected modulations, or the inclusion of programmatic elements — not to mention the wonderful dynamism present in much of his work. It’s no wonder Bach, for one, took great interest in his works.
Is it an unfair comparison? Nah. It’s just that so few people seem willing to discuss the qualitative differences between musics. People can be so damned egalitarian about it. (See Alex Ross, perhaps.)
The recorder is often regarded as little more than a kid’s toy with a piercing sound and little serious musical value. Even many who know that there is more to the recorder than Twinkle Twinkle Little Star — that is to say, those who are aware that the recorder had an important role in Renaissance and Baroque music — still seem to regard it as a less serious instrument, or something of a novelty. I certainly know this was my bias, especially thinking back to the squawks one made in primary school recorder clubs. But the history and repertoire is much richer than one generally imagines.
Some basics: recorders come in various types, the main ones being, from high to low, sopranino, descant (or soprano), treble (or alto), tenor, bass and contrabass. The descant is the one everyone learns Three Blind Mice on. The treble recorder is what most of the classical repertoire was written for. The tenor is a bit more obscure, and very few extant works exist for the bass recorder from the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
The recorder is played by covering the holes with your fingers and blowing into the mouthpiece. (The tenor sometimes has keys to compensate for the longer length, and the bass always does). This distinguishes it from the flute which is played held sideways. For a long while in the 17th and 18th century the term ‘flute’ in fact referred to recorders and the modern ordinary flute was referred to as a ‘transverse’ flute. Other languages had similarly confusing distinctions.
To give some perspective, it’s worth noting that the mechanism of the recorder is actually surprisingly similar to the organ. We know that going back to ancient times there were people who realised the simple fact that two recorders could be played simultaneously by one man (and no, not through one’s nostrils), and the organ basically mechanises and expands this idea. But instead of blowing into the recorders, air is pushed through by bellows. Early organs therefore required great stamina by the poor men tasked to operate the bellows. English organist John Stainer, writing in the late nineteenth century, remarked that ‘those who have any curiosity on the subject will still find in many continental churches, in some dark corner, a man busily engaged in mounting on first one and then another of several sets of feeders [the bottom bit of the bellows], and forcing the air into the bellows by his weight, as if he were under-going punishment at a musical treadmill.’ But even this is later on in the development of the organ. Before this the organ didn’t even have any keys. (Indeed, early keys were stiff things, hence the nickname at the time, ‘organ beater’, or pulsator organorum.) The pipes in this very early organ pictured below, essentially recorders without holes, are operated by pulling back the pieces of wood where the keyboard would nowadays be. This would either close or open up the foot of the pipe controlling the flow of air from the bellows behind.
The recorder itself came to prominence later on, in the sixteenth century, though duct flutes have existed since ancient times. The Renaissance recorder is similar to the modern recorder, but somewhat simpler in design. Renaissance recorders have fingerholes of all the same size, while the Baroque recorder, the design maintained today, has varying fingerhole sizes to facilitate higher notes. Renaissance recorders are also fairly straight and column-like, while Baroque recorders taper down towards the end. This means that Renaissance recorders are generally louder, more limited in range, and warmer sounding, whereas Baroque recorders are quieter but really pierce through when playing mid-high notes, while the lower notes are much harder to play. Naturally, the Baroque repertoire is on the whole much more challenging.
After the Baroque period the recorder seemed to face extinction. It was revived with a concert in England in the late 19th century, but the extent to which the instrument had been forgotten is evidenced by the fact that the player at this concert blocked up the thumb hole — he thought it had been put there by mistake! The mid-twentieth century saw its proper revival with recorder players like Michala Petri giving it its deserved respectability, and modern composers from Britten to Arnold to Part writing serious music for the instrument for the first time in about two centuries. (Of course it was also revived in the classroom, a mixed blessing.) Here’s Paul Hindemith’s ‘Plöner musiktag’ for one descant recorder and two treble recorders:
Still, the quality and quantity of modern recorder music is lacking, especially in proportion to the obvious number off enthusiastic and competent amateur players. There are often wonderful arrangements made of older music, though generally still Baroque or Renaissance — see the Flander’s Recorder Quartet, for example — or composers rearranging their own music for recorder, but seldom very remarkable original compositions. Usually it’s what you can expect from modernist music: lots of instrument-defying extended techniques, all very colourful, but little music.
Indeed, the recorder is capable of quite a few stranger techniques, given that it’s an instrument capable of microtonality (there are often two or more ways to play the same note, each sharper or flatter than the others, and the pitch can be altered also by how hard or soft one blows — or indeed by lifting your knee up to block the bottom hole, an endlessly amusing technique, especially if one alternates the knee), and also of multiphonics (a very fun effect, particularly on the recorder, whereby two notes sound simultaneously by singing one note into the recorder while playing another), among others. Below is an interesting video example. At one point the recorder is taken apart leaving only the mouthpiece. And at another point they are playing the unsightly Paetzold subcontrabass recorder, a blocky stereotypically-modernist beast so unattractive compared to the slender tapered beauty of the standard modern recorder. Still, it makes an impressive sound.
So perhaps its revival is better appreciated as an part of the early music revival as compared to, say, the 20th century revival of the classical guitar, which genuinely made it into a modern instrument. The recorder’s Baroque and Renaissance repertoire is rich and varied. In terms of Baroque composers, Handel and Telemann wrote sonatas for it, Vivaldi wrote recorder concertos, as did Scarlatti, Bach included it in many of his cantatas and two of his Brandenburg concertos, and C.P.E Bach even wrote a work that included bass recorder, one of the few rare instances we have of its use in a pre-20th century work.
Some of the most magnificent examples of recorder music in the Baroque period are found in Bach’s cantatas, a good portion of which specified recorders. His cantata ‘Gottess Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit’ is one such example. The cantata is a lesson on preparing for death, e.g. ‘Ah, Lord, teach us to consider that we must die, so that we might become wise’ (04:44-07:01), or more bluntly, ‘It is the ancient law: human, you must die! Yes, come, Lord Jesus!’ (08:06-11:55) The first movement (00:00-02:36) features two recorders prominently, then the most beautiful writing, I think, comes in the second part of the second movement (04:44-07:01). This is one of my favourite of his cantatas that I’ve heard (admittedly, I’ve still got well over a hundred to go), and it is nearly impossible to imagine how he wrote these gems week in week out.
In Renaissance music the recorder is perhaps not quite as immediately noticeable because of its warmer tone, such that it blends into the consort or orchestra more than the penetrating baroque recorder, as well as the fact that solo forms like the concerto and sonata had yet to be invented in this era of polyphonic equalibrium. It’s also the case that instruments weren’t always specified in scores, though recorders undoubtedly were prominently used among performers and many recorder consorts were set up, including by Henry VIII who even wrote a few tunes for the instrument himself. In terms of great works, you’ll find recorders in a lot of Monteverdi’s music, if you count it as renaissance music. There are a couple of recorders in L’Orfeo, for instance. If you watch this excerpt you’ll hear (and see) the recorders given the theme at about 3:50 and 5:20:
Why not end with this a performance of Vivaldi’s Recorder Concerto in C minor. Though one of the better known recorder works, one still has to be heartened by the fact that nearly 300,000 people have watched this (the recorder’s an alto, for those interested):
I flinched when reading the title of this article over at the Future Symphony Institute: ‘In memory of David Modell, and a few things orchestras might learn from the NFL’. What could classical music have to do with American football? Moreover, I feared a certain business-minded approach to classical music, an artform most often ill-served by the free market. Attempts to market it in conventional advertising ways seems to end in sexy glamour or an eye-rolling informality or a ‘greatest hits’ approach.
Fortunately this article takes a different tact. The author recollects a conversation he had with ‘football legend’ David Modell:
Over the years, I would chat with Dave about the challenge we orchestras believe we faced: asking ourselves how we could manage to charge less for tickets. “That’s crazy,” Dave would say. “You have to make your product seem as valuable to people as possible. Even the folks with little money spring for NFL tickets and the team jerseys if that’s something they really want. What’s so hard to understand about that?”
At first this was annoying to read. Price gouging to enhance a product’s status always seems silly and pretentious. For instance, those who spout the virtues of Voss water over tap water or other bottled water should be wholly ridiculed for it. Anyway, the author continues:
It simply rubs an arts administrator with an egalitarian mindset the wrong way to try to push up prices. Yet, people from all economic strata in Baltimore do fork over the big bucks for Ravens games. The Ravens and the Orioles, with their legendary Camden Yards, are the best shows in town – aside from the BSO, of course. Not everyone attends every game or every concert. Some people don’t attend any, but those who do pony up gladly
Ah, well there’s to greater insult than to be lumped together with egalitarian arts administrators! The author wants to make a greater event of concerts, he has a
dream of redesigning our concert experience, changing it from a two-hour sit-down-listen-and-leave routine to a five-hour window during which people show up in time to eat, drink, and be merry, the orchestra playing not just a world-class concert but also the world-class host. In short, the concert hall would become a destination for atmosphere, music, and hospitality.
He clearly placing great emphasis on the social function of music, something classical music has arguably abdicated, happy to let pop music fill that role. Where I sympathise is that more expensive tickets may well breed a more dynamic concert life. By virtue of my youth, I get extraordinarily cheap tickets. So I have reason to be very grateful for the push towards concessions and cheap tickets. And even without concessions, you can see a world-class orchestra for a fraction of the price of a world-famous pop group. The trouble is, this can soften one’s inner critic. If I pay a fiver for a Barbican ticket, say, I won’t be let down and will probably not give it much thought. I’ve been to a couple of bad concerts, of course, but as the ticket prices were so low, I just shrugged them off.
I did exactly that for a recent semi-staged performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio, part of the Southbank’s silly Belief and Beyond Belief concert series, which ruined the opera by interrupting the performance with naval-gazing on issues such as Saddam Hussein and Stalin, and the etymological root of the word ‘hope’. (This is not to mention the director’s decision to stage the first act as if it were a stage rehearsal.) Had I paid, say, £50 and not £10 I would probably have been utterly livid, rather than just disappointed. Would not the discourse around performances — and the quality and quantity of public music criticism — greatly improve, then, if prices were higher? I know if I’d paid £50 I would have written a full irritated review, whereas at £10 I thought ‘ah well’, and left it — but perhaps I’m unusual.
There is, for sure, a comparable effect when it comes to how we listen to albums. In the era when I and others had to buy albums, as a teenager rationed heavily by my pitiful allowance, each album would be listened to intently many times, each minute and each second given its due importance. Music streaming has further pushed the music to the background. And when searching for things to listen to, it can transform into a kind of speed dating, giving a recording no more than a minute to enchant you, or else it’s onto the next. The music costs practically nothing. We’ve discovered the utopia wherein free stuff really is free. Yet it isn’t that much of a utopia. You only get out what you put in, and in a population of musically illiterate freeloaders, we put in so little.
I’m not advocating a sharp price increase, if only because I cherish the ridiculously generous concessions I get. But as well as bankrupting orchestras, it may not be the best thing for the future of the artform. Maybe classical music needs the prestige that only money can buy?