Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) played the recorder!? I had no idea until my friend Frances sent me a link with this photo on it. Shame on me.
And not only did he play recorder, having been persuaded to give it a shot by his friend and colleague Imogen Holst, but from 1958 to 1976 Benjamin Britten was the President of Britain’s Society of Recorder Players.
Britten wrote a few pieces for or involving the recorder: Scherzo (1954), for recorder quartet (SATB); Alpine Suite (1955), a diminutive trio for a friend who broke her leg skiing in Zermatt (SSA); and there are recorder parts in two operas: Noye’s Fludde [Noah’s Flood] (1957); and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960).
Noye’s Fludde is based on one of the 15th-century Chester Mystery plays, and was designed to make use of many levels of musical skill – it’s a very community-oriented piece, a musical manifestation of ‘it takes a village…’ First presented in Britten’s home base of Aldeburgh (Suffolk) in 1958, it has had hundreds of performances around the world since then. Scored for a big cast – as many children extras as you can find for the animals of the ark! – it calls for adult solo singers, a children’s choir, and some younger soloists; a professional-level string quartet, recorder soloist, percussion, keyboard; and a student string orchestra, student recorder group, and so on – and a conductor, one with immense patience, unflagging enthusiasm, and no fear whatsoever. True, projects like this are a bit of a nightmare to organize, but they are completely worth the trouble. This kind of show provides the wonderful but fairly rare opportunity for younger musicians to work with professional singers and players over the whole production period; and it offers a dose of ‘get real’ for the pros, who may spend a lot of their working life in a more rarified concert atmosphere…Everyone’s horizons get broadened, and it’s brilliant.
I’ve been involved in two Noye’s Fluddes, with the Toronto Symphony under Andrew Davis and at the Guelph Spring Festival under Simon Streatfield. Both projects were inspiring, heartwarming, and worth every moment of the lengthy rehearsals required to get everything working. There was also a very high Cute Quotient once the smaller members of the cast got their costumes on.
You’ll get an idea of what I mean by those last two remarks if you take a look at this excerpt from a Canadian production of Noye’s Fludde, filmed by the CBC. Stay to the end and you’ll hear the solo recorder accompanying the dove, as she flies out from the ark and returns with an olive branch. The recorder player is Avery MacLean.
The festive season of 2013, with its Messiahs, Nutcrackers, carol services, and musical chestnuts thumping from the sound system of every mall across the continent, has come and gone. December is over, and the days are a bit quieter for many of us, musicians included. Most people believe Christmas to be a very busy work time for musicians, but it’s not necessarily so. It depends on what you play, where you play, who wants you to play, and what people seek as balm for their souls after slogging through the Christmas shopping, decorating the tree, and the office parties.
Most popular on this playlist is Händel’s Messiah, with its Hallelujah chorus, He was despised, etc., etc. Because of what I play I’m never involved in performances of this piece, since the orchestration for the original version doesn’t include flute or recorder; and I confess, perhaps to your surprise and to my shame, that I’m not all that sorry about this. My apologies to all who adore this piece, but I’m not a big fan and the only reason I’d be willing to play it night after night would be for a paycheque at the end. Since this mercenary attitude doesn’t exactly jive with the true meaning of the season, I’m happy to avoid this moral dilemma altogether. A December Messiah cheque would certainly come in handy for paying the bills that arrive in January, but it’s not the end of the world if I don’t get to play a dozen Messiahs. Or thirty Nutcrackers.
Original costume design for Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, 1892
Messiah was first performed in Dublin in 1742, and a year later in London, but during its life it’s been revised various times and what many people today hear as part of their Christmas tradition isn’t Händel’s original version. In 1789 Mozart was commissioned to rework it, and in so doing he added parts for flutes, clarinets, trombones and horns. His version was published in 1803, several years after he died, and it’s this version that is used by many modern-practice groups these days. It could also theoretically be used by period performance groups, if they weren’t so busy being true to Händel’s original; though you may occasionally have the opportunity to take in a historically informed performance of Mozart’s version of Messiah, it’s quite rare. For players of the instruments Mozart added, it’d be fun to be involved in such a performance; but if you really want a make-work Messiah for flutists, then the best version to revive would be Hillers from 1788 which featured eight flutes (plus hundreds of other players and choristers). But does anyone really want to hear that?
What’s a recorder/historical flutes player to do at the festive season, then?
Well, you might get to play the Christmas Story by Heinrich Schütz, dating from about 1660, which does have recorder parts. Or Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, which calls for flutes in the first three of six glorious cantatas which make up this piece. Well, sometimes I do get to play in those, but Canadian presenters don’t program these pieces anywhere near as often as their European counterparts, more’s the pity. But the other piece which can be often be heard at this time of year is Charpentier’s Messe de minuit, which calls for recorders in the simple yet beautiful settings of many lovely old French carols.
This festive season I wasn’t involved in any Charpentier, Schütz or Bach, but I did enjoy some concerts of a smaller, more independent but no less celebratory sort. In late November, for a recital at Islington United Church, Baroque harpist Julia Seager Scott and I combined arrangements of carol tunes from the 13th to 17th centuries with music by Corelli, Händel, Frescobaldi, Oswald and O’Carolan. In mid-December Toronto Consort and various guests gave three performances of Navidad, featuring festive music from 16th– and 17th-century Spain and Latin America. Here’s an example:
And between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, Ensemble Polaris rocked out the old year with Definitely Not the Nutcracker. Our CD of the same program has been getting some great reviews and we’re already booked for some shows of the program next year, so perhaps we’ll create our own tradition. Here’s one of the tunes you may eventually recognize:
While looking back on the smaller and more personal gigs of the season I remembered playing a couple of Christmas pageants many years ago, at the downtown Church of St Mary the Virgin and St Cyprian. I was in high school and studied piano with the church’s organist. She must have thought that a flute would be a nice touch in the pageant music, and it was fun to drive from the suburbs into deepest darkest Toronto to play a random collection of suitable tunes while people dressed up as Joseph, Mary, angels, Wise Guys and barnyard animals to create some genuine community theatre. It was wintry, it was cosy, and it was genuinely friendly. I also loved the building, and thought that the church had a really cool name – second only to St James Bond United, so named due to the unification of two United Church congregations (St James and Bond).
Our rehearsals always took place in the evening and, it being December, it was always dark during our drives downtown so I never really saw the neighbourhood in which the church was located. Many years later I was entertained to discover that my husband and I had moved into a house only two blocks away!
The church has long since ceased to be active and has been the twinkle in many a developer’s eye for quite a few years now. Development projects have been started, cancelled, put on hold, and the building is surrounded by boards, fences and plastic sheeting, many windows gone, no doubt a home to urban wildlife. Last year I happened on a blog post by Jonathan Castellino, who taken a number of very moving photographs. Do have a look at them, they are beautiful: