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A Remarkable Rebirth: The Recorder

The MHS Review 343 Vol. 9, No. 1 • 1985

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David M. Greene

In former times, if one met a slightly rumpled person puffing on a pipe, he was sure to be a professor. Tobacco pipes having been downgraded by restaurateurs, airline stewardesses, and the Surgeon General, you are more likely to meet a professor tootling meditatively on a musical pipe.

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As I've noted before, the recorder has en­joyed a remarkable rebirth within the last 30 years. This has been, in my experience, especially true in academic circles. In fact, the recorder, to judge from the number of my col­leagues who play it, have played it, or mean some day to play it, is the academician's in­strument. In former times, if one met a slightly rumpled person puffing on a pipe, he was sure to be a professor. Tobacco pipes having been downgraded by restaurateurs, airline stewardesses, and the Surgeon General, you are more likely to meet a professor tootling meditatively on a musical pipe. Inspired by academicians in graduate school, I took up the instrument-I quickly laid it down again!-and it was in that setting that I bought my first record of massed recorders. It featured an out­fit called the Recorder Consort of the Musi­cians' Workshop, and their combined efforts struck me then as sounding like a child-size calliope.


Authorities disagree as to the origins of the instrument. The Grove man, Edgar Hunt, traces it back only to 15th-century Italy, argu­ing that earlier references, pictorial and verbal, are too ambiguous to trust. Sybil Marcuse, however, is sure that it was known 300 years earlier, and Anthony Baines notes that in 1388 the future Henry IV of England owned a flute termed ricordo. (The term means "souvenir," and maybe Henry's was, but that cannot explain the present related name, whose origin is up for grabs.) The recorder saw its heyday in the 16th century, and in modified form in the baroque era, but was obsolescent by Mozart's prime.


It was in the 16th century that the notion of instrumental "families" came into its own, and the recorder developed accordingly. Sizes ranged from a tiny sopranino a few inches in length (whose sound reminds us that the in­strument is really a sophisticated wooden whistle) to contrabasses as long as nine feet (providing an occupation for people who to­day would be basketball millionaires). The 16th-century recorder was primarily an ensemble instrument inclined, as on this record, to consort with its own kind. It was carved from a single piece of wood (or occa­sionally ivory), was nearly cylindrical, had nine finger-holes and no keys, and covered a range of less than two octaves, the notes involved varying with the size of the instrument. It produced relatively few overtones (the sound complex that gives color and sparkle to tones), which accounts for its calliope-like hootiness. Fairly radical improvements in the 17th cen­tury did not sufficiently compensate for its lack of volume and dynamic range to prevent its being bested by the louder and more versatile transverse flute.


Italian Renaissance Recorder Music is a somewhat misleading title. Had you asked a music dealer of the time what he had in recorder music, he would probably have been puzzled. Specific instrumentation was, on the whole, an idea that began to take shape in the next century. Before that, music was music, and performed with whatever was available to suit. Even music written to a text-"vocal music" to us-was fair game for instrumen­talists, as the several madrigals recorded here show. The canzona (song) was, as its generic name hints, an instrumental genre that originated with transcriptions of French-style polyphonic chansons.


With two exceptions, the pieces performed here came from northeast Italy in the high Renaissance when music was about to go for baroque. The ringers are the Roman Palestrina and Orlande de Lassus, who worked in Italy only in his youth. Both are represented by imitative ricercars, an in­strumental form that may have derived from the vocal motet and was probably the ancestor of the fugue. Those by Lassus are usually described as bicinia (two-voice works); the authorship of the "Palestrina" examples is ex­tremely iffy. The madrigals come from Willaert and Cipriano (Cyprien) de Rore, two of the most important Lowland musicians of their time to settle in Italy. The Venetian Gabrielis, uncle and nephew, supply the canzone and another ricercar. Julio Segni, representated by a pair of fantasias, began his career in Modena (MO-de-nah), but migrated to Venice and spent his last two decades in Rome. Giorgio Mainerio, born in Parma, served as priest and choirmaster in Udine and Aquileia, and, rather improbably, left an important collection of dances with odd names (e.g. Putta nera, The Black Girl-Baby). Salomone Rossi, who signed himself "Hebrew of Mantua" and who succumbed to the plague epidemic of the Thir­ty Years War, was one of the few admittedly Jewish composers of his time.

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