A LADYLIKE CALLIOPE: MUSIC FOR RECORDERS
The MHS Review 408, VOL. 12, NO.12• 1988
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David M. Greene
In this electronic era the name of the recorder is especially confusing. It is mysterious at best. Like that of the tape machine and that of various officials, its main root is the Latin cor (heart). To record is to take to heart again, or to call to mind. But how that idea transfers to a musical instrument seems to baffle the authorities, most of whom sidestep the question.
The French, who sometimes call it a flute d'Angleterre, or English flute, may be on to something. In 1388 the future Henry IV bought, according to his (Latin) account book, "1 pipe by name Ricordo," thus recording the word for the first time, as far as we can ascertain. The Elizabethan-Jacobean poet Edward Fairfax spoke of hearing the lark record her hymns (meaning sing them), but the Grove man suspects that the verb derived from the noun. Eric Partridge, however, cites an Old English term, recordeor, meaning a minstrel. We know that later medieval minstrels committed much of their repertoire to memory, so perhaps the key (G-flat) lies here. (The common German name for the instrument is Blockflote, a flute made from a block of wood; the French is flute a bec, a flute with a beak or mouthpiece; the Italian is flauto dolce, or sweet flute. None of these poses a problem.)
Numbering five members (three gents, two ladies), Musica Dolce was organized 19 years ago in Sweden by Clas Pehrsson, a class person whom you may have encountered here before. Besides the usual descant (soprano), treble (alto), tenor, and bass instruments, they also play contrabasses and a subcontrabass. I was aware of the former--have seen one in action, and even knew someone who, after years of longing, acquired one. But the subcontrabass is new to me and is not mentioned in the several books and articles I consulted. It is apparently depicted on the back of the jacket of the original BIS record: Musica Dolce is shown carrying on its collective shoulder what might be mistaken for a Yule log However, don't expect it to sound like the trump of doom. It produces a soft booping at what seems to me a not extraordinarily low pitch.
The program might be called "The Recorder through the Centuries," though not all the selections were originally so intended. The chronological range is from Elizabethan times to 1974; there are three largish works, and a handful of shorter ones. The oldest of the former is one of Boismortier's 18th-century concerti for five unaccompanied instruments. Pehrsson hedges in saying that they are for "5 flutes or other descant instruments." The original publication, according to my information, says they are indicated to be for "5 transverse flutes, etc." (My oldest recording of one of these works is an Anthologie Sonore issue of Rampa! playing all five parts transversely, thanks to microphonic magic.) Never mind! It sounds fine on end-blown flutes--as if played by a sort of ladylike calliope.
Then there is a Hindemith trio, of all things! This is an example of his Gebraucbsmusik or workaday music, and was designed as part of a week of amateur music making at Plon, a lakeside village in Holstein. The third sizable work is the product of a double disguising: it is the Capriol Suite, originally for strings, by "Peter Warlock," the compositional pen name of the English musicologist Philip Heseltine (1894-1930). He based it on tunes from the 16th-century dance manual Orchesographie by "Thoinet Arbeau," the pseudonym of a dance-crazy French monk named Jehan Tabouret.
For the rest there is a canzona on a German Renaissance pop tune by Samuel Scheidt, and two fantasies on an English counterpart, usually known as "Browning," by Byrd and the almost-anonymous Clement Woodcock. From our own day, there is a Little Suite for recorder duo by the late Swedish composer Moses Pergament, and three Epigrams written for Musica Dolce by the Englishman Peter Lyne. (The second sounds just like the local firehouse sirens announcing Saturday noon.)