Rant #1

During my undergrad years at university I was pretty delighted to be majoring on the recorder. It was the instrument that I felt was the most ‘me,’ my teacher Hugh Orr was just great, and I had lots of opportunities to play. But playing this instrument also made me a bit of an outsider. I was regarded by some of my fellow students and professors either as unusual – ‘dancing the to the beat of a different drummer’ was the polite cliché often used – or as a deluded loser. They couldn’t imagine how anyone could make a living playing the instrument. At the time, neither could I, but then none of the student pianists, singers, or anyone else had a clue either.
“I’m going to play solo recitals all over the world.”
“I’m going to be first flute in the New York Philharmonic.”
“I’m going to establish Starbucks on Neptune.”
Dream big. People did. You have to, especially when you’re 20. There are thousands of people already doing what you want to do. You have to think you can do anything, otherwise you’d never set foot outside your house.

Some people at the Faculty of Music were just plain incredulous that the recorder was permitted as a major instrument. One professor prognosticated that it would never be allowed as a major in the performance degree program at either undergrad or graduate levels. He turned out to be wrong on both counts (sorry, Sir). ‘Never say never’ is very wise advice.

There were other people who were more supportive, like the music education professor who told me I was ‘just the right size’ to play the sopranino recorder, whatever that meant, and got me to play solos in her pedagogy demonstrations. It wasn’t the best forum for altering the general perception of the recorder, but at least people heard the instrument sound a lot different than what they remembered from grade school.

My fellow students were mostly nice, though I heard the occasional comment about how any ‘real’ musical instrument wouldn’t have hibernated its way through the 19th century, or that if Beethoven and Brahms didn’t write anything for recorder why would you even bother with it, or that the recorder shouldn’t be a major instrument because anyone could play it, and had indeed done so, in grade four.
Such lines of reasoning always mystified me, and still do. You’re likely not surprised that I have some rebuttals, two of which go like this:

1) Granted, the 19th century is a big one for many people in the ‘art’ music world and the Western Conservatory tradition of musical education – but the recorder’s repertoire does span the 13th to 18th centuries, and then the 20th century onward. It’s true that the 19th century and the recorder suit each other about as well as Mahatma Ghandi and a hand grenade, but COME ON. The lack of just one century’s repertoire doesn’t mean you have no music worth playing.

(2) Like most people who’ve lived in a house with a piano, I can play Chopsticks and The Happy Miller, but I don’t take that to mean that the piano is easy to play or that its repertoire can usually be learned in just a few lessons. Nor do I believe for one second that the ability to play the first prelude from the Well-Tempered Klavier gives me an understanding of the piano similar to that of, say, Alicia de Larrocha. (She can play all the preludes, and the fugues.) I passed a piano proficiency exam to get my Bachelor’s degree, and I accompany students to this day, but I don’t think of myself as a pianist, because I’m not one. Likewise, just because you can still play Go Tell Aunt Rhody like you did in fourth grade, and you still have the very same recorder, doesn’t make you a recorder player.

Or consider the mighty violin. People who attend a professional performance of Barber’s Adagio for Strings don’t expect the violins to sound like a Suzuki class. Your average person understands that when little Billy plays Twinkle Twinkle, he isn’t going to sound like the concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and vice versa. But despite all the good recorder playing going on in public around the world, there are still people out there who insist that Bach’s Fourth Brandenburg is for flutes, and modern ones at that. Recorders? No way, because using recorders would allegedly sound squeaky and out of tune, and that is surely not what Bach intended…

Mind you, as well as all the good recorder playing going on these days, there are also a lot of antics which don’t exactly help the instrument’s image or credibility, and at some point I’ll have to talk about that here. But for now, let me finish this particular rant with a little story to support a previous point.

I once had a telephone conversation with a man who told me he’d heard me on the radio that very morning, and how beautiful he thought my playing was. Very kind of him. I thanked him and out of curiosity I asked what he’d heard.

“It was Corelli,” he said, “on the flute.”

I did a mental scroll-down of the Corelli I’ve committed to CD, all of which was played on the recorder. Motivated by the habitual desire to stick up for this instrument which regularly gets such grief, I said something like, “Really? I think I played that Corelli on the recorder.”

“No, I’m absolutely sure it was the flute,” he told me. “The recorder could never sound that good.”

Sighting #3

Wow, a mid-20th-century hearthrob with a recorder. Talk about an unexpected prop. Judging from the hand position he didn’t really know how to play it; but I’m pretty sure that really didn’t matter…


There are a variety of photos from this shoot to choose from. Wish I knew the photographer to credit.

University begins

When I decided to study music at university, I applied and entered as a modern flutist. The recorder wasn’t included in the syllabus listings of the schools to which I applied, a pretty normal situation at most universities and colleges in North America at the time. Some schools had an early music ensemble that played medieval and Renaissance music with the ‘once around the kitchen’ orchestration technique – ‘hold on, I just played the Kyrie on the shawm, now I think I’ll play the Christe on that sackbut, hand it over’ – but the idea of an actual early music department was barely a twinkle in any musicologist’s eye.

Edward Johnson Building, Toronto

I went to the University of Toronto and was placed in the studio of Robert Aitken, solo flutist with the Toronto Symphony and a fabulous player who went on to found New Music Concerts and champion contemporary music around the world. But before I’d had a single lesson I learned from a friend that the school had recently permitted the recorder as a major instrument for most courses of study, so I submitted a request to switch my major. My reasoning was fairly simple: I was mainly interested in earlier music and wanted to play it for a living, if I could. I loved playing the recorder, and all of its repertoire, and even though it wasn’t yet possible to earn a performance degree on it, the recorder made more sense in the musicology stream into which I was headed. Or so I thought.

It was the Performance Department Head who placed students with their professors, and he clearly didn’t think much of my decision. I asked him about it during my audition for concert band (everyone had to be in a major ensemble, more on that later), and he was completely bewildered. Loudly bewildered.

‘Are you SURE? But you’re giving up lessons with ROBERT AITKEN!!!’  He followed this up with some eye rolling, and muttered that it was my life to mess up, if that’s what I wanted…But in the end he signed off on the change of major – and he also placed me in the concert band, where I tootled away on flute and piccolo for most of my undergrad years. Now some people might not think that playing in a band is fun, but I loved it; and it beat the hell out of bleating my way through four years with the University Screamers (not their official title, as you will surmise), the choir made up of everyone who didn’t get to be in orchestra or band or concert choir. I did end up there in fourth year, after a school policy change that disallowed non-band-instrument majors from playing in the band. Oh woe. But, as they say, I digress.

The department head also figured he’d test my mettle right away by throwing me into the Collegium Musicum, a Baroque-repertoire performance class directed by the late great Greta Kraus, in which my sinking or swimming would be both immediate and highly public.

The late, great Greta Kraus.

The late, great Greta Kraus.

I was fairly terrified at the first session. There I was, a recorder-playing lowly first year student, in a roomful of senior performance majors and a fiery, expatriate Austrian lioness of a professor. It was a nerve-wracking beginning, but what a huge gift that department head had given me. Greta was an utterly inspiring musician and fantastic coach; and, fortunately, I swam. For four years, I got to play Bach and Telemann aria obbligatos and beautiful trio- and quartet-sonatas with many wonderful musicians, some of whom became colleagues for years afterwards. Valerie Weeks, a harpsichordist with whom I ended up playing for a very long time, showed up in Collegium the next year.

Chauvon and his Tibiades

In my post about the loss of Washington McClain a few weeks ago, I mentioned the Tibiades of François Chauvon. Shortly before Wash’s death, I began preparing a short post about that music, which I’m now offering.

Few details are known about the life of François Chauvon. A Parisian musician who studied with François Couperin, he published a selection of instrumental music and cantatas between 1712 and his death in 1740. He appears to have published another set of ‘pièces pour la flute’ in 1713, four years before the suites known as Tibiades saw the light of day, but so far I haven’t had any luck finding these. If those earlier suites haven’t been destroyed by war, natural disaster or a big plumbing problem wherever they were stored, I hope they’re found one day. If any of you have any pertinent info, I hope you’ll share it!

A page from the second suite

A page from the second suite

The collection of music called Tibiades is a set of suites for treble instrument and basso continuo, in the tradition of Hotteterre, the Philidors, Dornel and several others. Chauvon’s publication was dedicated to Couperin, harpsichordist and ‘organiste du Roy’ and the composer of much harpsichord and ensemble music from which Chauvon must have taken no little inspiration. On the title page of the Tibiades Chauvon describes them as a ‘new type of piece for the flute/recorder, and the oboe, with some sonatas for the violin’  (‘nouveau genre de pièces pour la flûte, et le hautbois, avec quelques sonates pour le violon’). In choosing to call his suites by the name Tibiades he’s clearly harkening back to antiquity – the tibia was a bone flute – and to the mythology of ancient Greece and Rome, with which all educated eighteenth-century Europeans were very well acquainted.

In the body of the Tibiades there are no specific indications of which suites might be meant for which instrument(s), but a simple examination of the key signatures and ranges of the treble part gives a good basis on which to make your decisions. The Tibiades are all playable on the traverso, oboe and violin, though some keys suit one instrument more than the others. The range of many of these suites also makes them playable on the alto recorder without having to resort to the usual transposition described by Hotteterre (up a minor third). Here’s a movement from the fourth suite:

Gigue, le Chapard (Suite IV)

However, there’s no need to limit your orchestration just because you see only one treble and one bass part. Varying the instrumentation from movement to movement is fun, as is doubling up, and entirely appropriate from a historical point of view. One very clear example of employing a variety of instrumental colours comes from François Couperin, in his description of the first performances of his Concerts royaux at the French court in 1714-15. In the preface to the published edition of the Concerts royaux, Couperin tells the reader that these pieces were played by himself, the violinist Duval, one of the woodwind-playing Philidors, the bassoonist Dubois and the violist da gamba Alarius. Since most of the pieces in question have only one treble line with a figured bass part – an occasional second treble part is occasionally included – this group of the King’s musicians might very well have traded off or doubled their parts as they played, for variety’s and expediency’s sake. Here’s an example of multiplying voices on the treble line, in Chauvon’s tenth Tibiade:

Gigue, Suite 10

Couperin also says one can play the music as solo pieces for harpsichord, which works very well with certain of Chauvon’s tunes too. Here is Charlotte Nediger’s rendition of a movement from the first Tibiade.

Arpégement, le Pièche (Suite 1)

And here, since I can’t find a picture of Chauvon, is one of his teacher:

François Couperin the Dapper

François Couperin the Dapper

The Tibiades are charming and elegant little suites, well worth exploring. You can find a facsimile edition for purchase at Anne Fuzeau’s on-line shop:


And the CD from which these sound clips are taken can be found at: