About Alison


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:


Kiwanis Festival Karma

Though I wasn’t a private student of hers any longer, I played until I was sixteen or so in a small consort for teenaged recorder players which Isabel Smaller continued to coach. For several years, Isabel would collect my friend Janet and I from our homes on Sunday afternoons and drive us out to what seemed like the middle of nowhere for a couple of hours of consort playing. It was usually a group of three or four, recorder playing not being a trendy activity in the minds of high schoolers – plus ça change, but anyway…Occasionally we were joined by people either a bit younger and/or very much older, but it was usually just three teenagers with recorders and one with a guitar. Isabel found opportunities for us to perform at the Unitarian church where we rehearsed, for CAMMAC* events and at other functions, and when we were all fourteen-ish she took us to play at a music education conference in Charlottetown, PEI. I found the conference boring, what with all the adults around, but the red soil of PEI was some of the coolest dirt I’d ever seen. I loved Charlottetown and I’m happy to have been back to play there several times since.


Isabel also entered us in the Kiwanis Music Festival a number of times, usually in the “Recorder Ensemble, Open” category, which meant that there was no age limit for the competitors. Though I appreciate the ‘performance-under-pressure’ opportunity they provided, those Kiwanis competitions were usually a bit strange. We often ended up competing against grade school groups, which was thoroughly awkward. In one particular year there were only two entries in the class – a grade 4 school group, and ours. The school children were eight and nine years old, we were fourteen and fifteen; they’d been playing in school for a year or two, we’d been playing since we were their age; they played with several people on each part, we played one-on-a-part. Our group played part of the Hindemith trio and something from the 17th century, I guess, maybe Jenkins or Gibbons; the school group played something like Amazing Grace and Git Along Lil’ Dogie.

This type of class still exists in music festivals today, and it’s great because it provides anyone and everyone an opportunity to enter the festival regardless of their age. If a string quartet made up of middle-aged doctors wants something to work towards, this kind of class awaits them, where they might be pitted against the Happy Acres Ensemble and chamber ensembles from arts high schools. It’s all fine as long as the playing field is more or less even. But every once in a while it isn’t, as was often the case with the recorder ensembles.

Anyway, the school group played very well, and we did pretty well too I guess, but for the adjudicator it must have absurd. On one hand, the choice for first and second prize between two groups so different in age and skill level might have seemed like a no-brainer, but actually making the choice was totally ludicrous and unnecessary. These events are supposed to be positive, encouraging experiences for the competitors, especially the younger, less seasoned ones. As long as I have memory, I’ll always recall how that adjudicator dealt with the situation, with his wise but uncommon decision in the competition-oriented, winning-supposedly-means-everything, music festival world. He strode to the front of the room, congratulated everyone on a job well done, made some good suggestions for both groups, and announced to the assembled mini-multitude that he was going to make it – a tie for first. Absolutely brilliant.

And I often remembered this guy whenever I ended up in his position, as an adjudicator at Kiwanis Festivals in Ottawa, Guelph, Halifax and Sarnia. In Halifax there was a woman much like Isabel, whose name was Priscilla Evans. She seemed to run her recorder teaching studio with a devotion and intensity reminiscent of Isabel’s, and just like Isabel she went far above and beyond the call of duty when she believed her students warranted that kind of support. She also seemed to be able to keep several of her students interested in ensemble playing through their high school years, which was no mean feat; and consequently the ‘open’ recorder ensemble classes at Halifax’s annual Kiwanis Festival were always interesting, inspiring, and fun to adjudicate.

Keith, Alison, Janet and Isabel at Don Heights.

Keith, Alison, Janet and Isabel at Don Heights.

*Canadian Amateur Musicians/Musiciens amateurs du Canada

Travelling, Then and Now…and a minimum temperature clause.

For about a decade, four colleagues and I played together in a group called Musick Fyne. That name is an old Scots term for ‘art’ music and, not surprisingly, we chose it as our name because one of our repertoire focuses was seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Scottish music. We were a singer, harpsichordist, lutenist and two wind players, so we had lots of programming options. We also designed a concert of music from eighteenth-century Nova Scotia, Upper and Lower Canada and New England, the repertoire for which was drawn from (or suggested by) concert programs and concert descriptions found in 18th-century diaries and newspapers. Years later while in Philadelphia to teach at a workshop, I took a walking tour of the old city on my afternoon off, and ended up in one of the rooms where some of these 18th-century concerts had taken place. That was pretty inspiring! Here it is, if I’m not mistaken, with a fresh coat of paint:

Long Gallery, Independence Hall, Philadelphia

Long Gallery, Independence Hall, Philadelphia

This program also included a piece called The Hector, written for us by Canadian composer John Beckwith,*  which fit the program beautifully with its tale of a historic eighteenth-century sea voyage that brought Scottish immigrants to Canada after the Highland Clearances. There were many such voyages, but this one was particularly well documented. Beckwith drew his libretto from the captain’s log, describing the ship’s journey from Ullapool to Pictou, Nova Scotia in 1773. It was an arduous and unpleasant journey with a rough ending for the settlers, who arrived to find the land they’d been promised to be completely uncleared of forest, and no other provisions for accommodation and food made for them.

We gave many performances of this program, including several for a Nova Scotia tour which included the town of Pictou on the itinerary. It was very touching that in our audience that night there were descendants of the people whose emigration journey was described in Beckwith’s piece. Some of those people came to speak with us after the show. While we were there we saw the replica of the Hector, which was under construction in Pictou’s harbour; today you can go on board and take a tour of it, at the Hector Museum.

Can you imagine crossing the Atlantic in this?


For information about the trip of the Hector, and a passenger list, look here:


The travellers on the Hector endured some horrific conditions during their journey, on top of the requisite seasickness: lack of sanitation, insufficient food, dysentery, smallpox, and more. Many deaths were recorded on board, as were numerous births. The weather was dreadful at times, including one massive storm which blew them so far off course that their journey was extended by ten days or so.

Musick Fyne’s journeys around Canada were mercifully pale by comparison. The weather was often a total surprise: we had fantastic bright sunshine and NO snow for every day of a February tour in Saskatchewan, we had sunny skies and very little rain in BC, and our Maritime province travels were similarly deluge-free. ‘Lucking out’ with the weather seemed almost the norm. Our only real challenges came with winter concerts in southern Ontario, one of which involved a memorable white-knuckle drive from Gananoque back to Toronto, at night and in a blizzard. Visibility was maybe six feet. On the bright side (if you can call it that), the harpsichord in the back of the rental van provided us with some extra ballast. We would’ve probably made some quite spectacular sounds had we ended up on our side in a ditch, but happily we didn’t have to find out.

Moral of this part of the story: when in a snowstorm, always let the guy from Saskatchewan drive.

One January afternoon during a central Ontario tour we arrived at the elegant, stately old home that was the venue for that evening’s concert. The grounds were gorgeous, with massive evergreens and shrubs blanketed with fresh snow, and the grey stone house looking both regal and melancholy. We loaded the harpsichord and the rest of our gear into the designated performance space – a fabulous big dining room – but after standing there for a few minutes I thought I’d better go and get my coat from the van. It was absolutely %#$&ing freezing in that big dining room. It wasn’t until I was halfway across the parking lot when I realized that something was pretty wrong if I was in greater need of my coat indoors than out.

I came back with all my layers on to find my colleagues in various states of consternation. It turned out that the owners of the stately old home usually left that part of the house unheated. They didn’t normally use it, preferring to live in another wing of the place, and heating the entire house was colossally expensive.They did plan to turn on the heat on about an hour before the concert, but it was far too cold to do any rehearsing in the space, which we’d arrived early to do. And as for acclimatizing the instruments, forget it. The harpsichordist was already looking a bit blue, both from the cold and from thinking about how many times she was probably going to have to re-tune. (This was an instance in which that joke about how harpsichordists or lutenists ‘tune for two-thirds of the time, and play out of tune for the rest of it,’ was not even remotely funny. It’s not really very funny anyway, but in this situation it might have gotten you a tuning hammer in your eye.) The other wind player was wondering if we should take bets on exactly how long it would take before our instruments cracked once we started playing, even if the room warmed up by concert time. Nooooo pre-concert warmup for us.

The heat did get turned on about an hour before the show and the temperature rose from Siberian to semi-toasty over the next couple of hours, as the collective body heat of the audience added to the furnace’s contribution. It was certainly warm enough to play and when all was said and done, everyone seemed to have had some fun. Well, almost everyone. I’ve never seen a harpsichord tuning hammer make so many appearances in a show, before or since.

Second moral of the story: always include a minimum temperature clause in your contract. Seriously.

That said, there are many good reasons to tour Canada in the winter. It might be cold, but it’s beautiful. Here’s a shot taken on tour, on the highway just outside Banff, Alberta.

Outside Banff

*For more information on John Beckwith, please see:



Coming Back to Canada

My mother and I moved back from the UK to Canada a few months before I turned ten. I remember the precise date we travelled, October 8, because it was the day before John Lennon’s birthday (I was, and remain, a big Beatles fan). We moved in with my mother’s younger sister, her husband and two small children – how generous of them that was – and began the process of settling in. My mother searched for a job, a school for me, and among other things, a recorder teacher.

It didn’t take long to find Beate, the kind and self-effacing expatriate German woman who played the recorder and very conveniently lived right next door. It was with her that I first played duets, short dance and folk song tunes from little books featuring the same Old German script I was to re-encounter in 18th-century facsimile editions of Quantz and his ilk. It was a lot of fun playing duets with Beate, though at first I was a bit freaked out by the strange buzzing I heard as we played together. This production of difference tones is the normal result when two co-existing high frequencies team up to produce a third one, but I’d never heard this so clearly before, and I really thought there was a swarm of bees in the room.

My next teacher Isabel Smaller lived a few blocks further away, across the neighbourhood junior school’s football field. As I’ve described in an earlier post, Isabel made most of her living as an itinerant recorder teacher for the Toronto School Board, but also taught a few people privately at her home, and coached small ensembles at a Unitarian church further out in the suburbs. I have fond memories of many rides in her off-white coloured VW Beetle, the back seat of which was strewn with stray plastic recorder pieces, recorder cases, method books, photocopies of fingering charts, cleaning swabs, cork grease containers, pencils. Making a space for yourself in the rear of that car was an adventure, like excavating a Cabinet of Blockflute Curiosities.


I owe a big debt of gratitude to Isabel, both for what she taught me herself and for the opportunities she found and made available to me. When I was eleven she put my name in for a scholarship from the Canadian Amateur Musicians organization (CAMMAC) to enable me to take lessons with Hugh Orr. Hugh was one of the two leading names in the Canadian recorder world at that time, and lessons with him cost more than any single parent could afford. Very fortunately for me the executive of CAMMAC offered a scholarship for 50% of my tuition fees, and so for the next two years I headed to Hugh’s place every week for private and consort lessons. Thank you Isabel, thank you CAMMAC!

Every time I look back on this part of my life, I’m increasingly grateful. The private lessons were enlightening, rich and demanding; but on top of those, I got to play Bach fugues and Renaissance fantasias in a recorder quartet with my teacher and two other kids my own age who played really well, all before I reached my teens. Learning to play in an ensemble where the parts weren’t doubled, learning how to listen to the other voices while playing my own, how to tune, how to find my way back into the piece if I got lost, at that age – well, it was a wonderful and rare opportunity. I didn’t really realize that at the time, all I knew was that it was always loads of fun, and sometimes very challenging. Later on I would teach people coming into university and college who had never played any consort music at all, ever, but I’d had six years of it before I hit university. Such good fortune.

Hugh, having some fun.

Hugh, having some fun.

Hugh was an extraordinary teacher. Trained on piano and cello, he was self-taught on the recorder and had the most remarkable analytical skill at solving pretty much any technical problem one might have. I learned a lot about playing the recorder from him, but also how to practice and how to problem-solve. Though he was to be my professor at university a few years later, too, I learned some of these important things as a child in those first two years of lessons. He was anything but fond of public performance and so did very little of it, but he was a very busy player in the radio, TV and jingle world. I’ve played with a lot of people and I’ve never seen anyone come close to his composure, musicality and accuracy in front of a microphone.

He also wrote a two-volume recorder method,* still one of the best available for its careful descriptions of technical questions, helpful photographs, and for the music contained in its two volumes. It’s a particularly good method for older beginners. Years later, when I headed across the Atlantic to study at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, my teacher there asked that I bring her some copies of Hugh’s books. Turns out she used them with some of her Schola students, some of the young hotshots of their countries, to help them with basics like hand position, left thumb technique, and more: she said one of Hugh’s pictures was worth more than a whole lot of words.

Thank you, Hugh.

*Hugh Orr: Basic Recorder Technique, Vols. 1 and 2


Remembering Washington

When I began collecting material for this post last week, I had planned to focus on the Tibiades of François Chauvon, a little-known collection of elegant and slightly eccentric suites from early eighteenth-century Paris. Eight of these can be heard on a CD released last fall on Montréal’s early-music.com, a recording project of which I was delighted to be a part.

But to paraphrase John Lennon, life is what happens while you’re making other plans, and earlier this week my writing plans were unexpectedly altered by the sad news that my dear friend and colleague Washington McClain, a baroque oboist whom I knew for close to twenty years and with whom I played countless concerts of chamber and orchestral music, had died. He was one of North America’s busiest and most admired baroque oboists and taught at Indiana University. When he passed away suddenly last Sunday at the age of fifty-two, we all lost a radiant musical light.

So for now, I’ll write about Washington and our last musical collaboration, which by a bittersweet synchronicity was that recording of Chauvon.

Washington was a superlative musician. Elegantly expressive and adroit in technique, he had ‘ears’ so good I’m sure he could hear the grass grow. He was a paragon of integrity and professionalism, and he was also a mensch. Wash was serious and of strong opinion when he felt he needed to be, but he also had a smile that lit up the room and a deep sense of collegiality. I also loved him for his genuine, ongoing exploration of everything and anything that really brought the music off the page, especially with repertoire such as the Chauvon. He never got tired of wondering.

Photo by Colin Savage.

Photo by Colin Savage.

For a few sweltering days during a heat wave in July 2011, Wash and I gathered with bassoonist Michael McCraw, harpsichordist Charlotte Nediger and violinist Julia Wedman to rehearse and record eight of the twelve Tibiades. We were lucky to have found nearly a full week when everyone was available for the project. It’d been quite a while since all five of us had seen each other and we were happy to be reunited, so there was a little bit of magic afoot. The Ontario Arts Council had given the project some funding, and we’d secured the services of an excellent producer (Ivars Taurins) and ears-of-gold sound engineer (Ed Marshall). Our venue was Toronto’s St Thomas’s Anglican Church, an anglo-catholic oasis of calm despite its location half a block south of one of the busiest streets in the city.


That recording was hard work, mostly because of the oppressive heat. St. Thomas’s is a serene place with dark wooden rafters, terracotta tile floor and a paucity of large windows, but it got very hot and humid as the sessions progressed. ( You can’t leave the ceiling fans on, or leave the windows open during recording sessions like this, unless you think the sound of an idling truck or the barking of a Jack Russell terrier adds some extra élan to music from eighteenth-century Paris.) We consumed water by the jug, we toweled off repeatedly, we made ice packs to cool our feet (surprisingly effective!). There were a few more curses than usual about errant tuning, flabby strings and recalcitrant reeds, and some discussion about how much more clothing we could take off without offending anyone. But despite all that and the occasional self-recriminations we took turns having (“I remembered the repeat for the first four takes, why did I forget it now?!?”), we had a lot of fun exploring that music and were all very, very happy to have done so together.

We recorded for three days, creating a French Baroque sonic kaleidoscope by varying the number of players and instrumental colours for many of the suites. A prélude played by us all was followed by an allemande for the flute, violin and harpsichord, then a courante for the oboe with continuo, a gavotte for oboe and bassoon, an arpègement for solo harpsichord, and so on. Three of the suites were given the more standard treatment, one each for oboe, violin and recorder (with continuo). Here’s Wash with Michael and Charlotte, playing the Allemande from the Third Suite:

Allemande, la Dragonne – Suite 3

Still other movements got the tutti treatment with some spelling-off for variety’s sake, as in the Chaconne en rondeau from the Eleventh Suite:

Chaconne en rondeau, Suite 11

Chauvon: Les nouveaux bijoux came out last fall, and kind and favourable reviews have recently begun to appear. I’ve listened to the CD again several times this week just to hear Wash. Knowing I’ll never sit beside him again is heartbreaking, but his beautiful playing is there to enjoy as often as I wish. It was a joy and an inspiration to know and make music with him, and I’m beyond grateful that we made that CD.

Wash was also a good friend, affectionate, honest, thoughtful, funny, wise, and a great storyteller. People had to push pretty hard before he ceased giving them the benefit of the doubt. I can’t believe I will never have another of those long telephone conversations with him, or hear his laugh again. It seems inconceivable that our visits to the Ethiopian restaurant around the corner are over, and that he will never walk through our front door again. What a terrible loss. I miss him greatly and will remember him often, even if I should live to be a very old lady.

Don Giovanni, Japan 2000

Don Giovanni, Japan 2000


Jacques Paisible

Late 17th-century London was a thriving, cosmopolitan, artistically busy place where much music for the recorder was composed and played. Perhaps the most celebrated exponent of this activity was Jacques Paisible. Born in or near Paris to a family with members in the employ of Louis XIV, he had moved to London by 1675 when he was mentioned as a player of oboe and recorder for a production of the masque Calisto at Whitehall. Also known as James Peasable or Pesible, he played ‘bass violin’ in James II’s Roman Catholic Chapel, served as court composer for Princess/Queen Anne and after her death, played bass in the Drury Lane and Haymarket Theatre bands, played recorder in public concerts and theatre intermission entertainments, and was one of the first recorder teachers of the Royal Academy of Music at its founding in 1695.

A much-admired virtuoso player on the London scene, Paisible’s numerous recorder sonatas and suites remained unpublished during his lifetime. Though he spent most of his working life in England, his music is decidedly French in its style and conceit; that said, several of his fast movements demand far greater fleetness of fingers than your average French suite. Then again, some of his other sonatas aren’t very technically demanding, so there’s also something for players who want less of a challenge. I enjoy Paisible for his changeability and occasional eccentricity, and if like me you appreciate off-the-beaten-track music which makes demands on your interpretive and expressive skills, with a few bat-shit crazy movements in awkward keys thrown in every once in a while, you’ll make a new friend in Jacques/James.

One of Paisible’s non-musical claims to fame was his marriage to Moll Davis, a celebrated actress and a mistress to Charles II before she settled down with Jacques/James. I couldn’t find a picture of Mr. Paisible, so here’s a painting of his  charming wife by Peter Lely. She was apparently a strong and independent-minded woman, not an easy thing to be in seventeenth-century London. Or now, for that matter.


Several of Paisible’s suites and sonatas were edited by Marianne Metzger for Dolce’s series The Delightful Companion (two volumes, DOL 250 and 251).

David Lasocki has also recently released e-editions of previously unpublished duets, sonatas and suites by Paisible, which are available at


There are several recordings out there featuring at least a little of Paisible’s recorder music. His Sonata VI is on the program of The Business of Angels, a CD of English recorder music from the turn of the 18th century which I recorded in 2010. This sonata comes from a MS in the collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris (Solos de Mr Pesible) and is thought to have been composed around 1695. Here’s the fourth movement, a Presto.

Paisible Sonata VI mv4

Business of Angels cover

Hamlet’s Recorders

There are various recorder ‘sightings’ in film, TV and celebrity photography, one of which I posted yesterday, and more of which I’ll post as time passes. A number of these are very entertaining but unfortunately also tend to reinforce negative stereotyping of the instrument, but there are also few times when something goes right. One of the latter happens in Kenneth Branagh’s film production of Hamlet. I first saw this movie on a snowy weekday afternoon in the dead of winter, a very suitable time for the sad story of the mad prince of Elsinore. The cinema was maybe half full, which was impressive for a weekday afternoon in bad weather, but almost everyone there was either a senior citizen or a high school student. There were several classes of the latter, so it must have been English Class Field Trip Day as well as Seniors Tuesday, and I was one of only a handful of people between the ages of 17 and 60. A very interesting and unusual crowd and atmosphere!

There’s a section of Hamlet (in Act 3, scene 2) in which Guildenstern and Rosencrantz attempt to talk some sense into the seriously messed-up prince. It’s a brilliant little bit of double entendre on the art of manipulation, and it begins shortly before Hamlet’s line, ‘The recorders, let me see one!” This is the moment in the play where all recorder nerds and musicological purists wait with bated breath to see exactly what kind of a recorder Hamlet is handed, and it’s here that you find out whether or not the director actually gave any thought to the musical instrument to which Shakespeare refers. Will it look like a recorder from Shakespeare’s era, or will it be a $20 piece-of-crap soprano? Will it be like the purple one with glitter that I got at a Japanese truck stop for $5? (Seriously, if anyone ever does a production of Hamlet in drag, I’ve got the perfect instrument for that scene.)


It’s believed that Hamlet was written between 1599 and 1603, and at that time anyone in London would have expected to see a recorder looking like this:


As you can see from the link, this particular instrument currently lives in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. It dates from around 1600 and was made by a member of the Bassano family or one of their colleagues, in either Venice or London. The Bassanos were a celebrated of Italian musicians, some of whom were brought to England by Henry VIII to work in his musical household. Members of the family remained in royal employ until the 1630s.

But back to the movie. Branagh’s vision for Hamlet obviously didn’t include setting it in Shakespeare’s time or anything earlier, and that’s just fine – the costumes and sets are a sumptuous feast for the eyes, and the cinematography is beautiful. But it did make me wonder what was coming in Act III scene 2. A flutophone, or a Bakelite alto for that ‘old’ effect? A serpent, maybe? The moment arrived, Branagh uttered the famous cue, and to my complete surprise, he was handed – a Renaissance  tenor recorder, looking very much like a copy of the one that’s pictured above!  Property master Danny Hunter did his homework and found the appropriate horn, and I was totally impressed. I’m still so impressed that I made sure to look up Danny Hunter’s name before writing this. Granted, a serpent or a clarinet might have been more appropriate in the context of Branagh’s choice of historical setting – and frankly, in the great scheme of things all this doesn’t really matter – but it was exactly the right flute for Shakespeare’s language, and it was so much fun to see that.

If you want to see this segment of Branagh’s film, here’s a YouTube link:


For comparison, and an example of unfortunate recorder typecasting, here’s the link to an excerpt of another made-for-TV production made by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2009. It’s a longer clip: the recorder scene begins around 5:30 and if you stick with it, you’ll hear Three Blind Mice (I kid you not) around 6:58.


There’s one other small tale to tell from that winter afternoon visit to the movies, apart from how much I enjoyed the film in general and that little scene in particular. During the intermission, while standing in line for the loo between two fifteen- or sixteen-year-old girls, I couldn’t help but overhear the following conversation:

“So what do you think of the movie?”

“Oh, I like it, it’s pretty cool.”

“Yeah, I like it too, but Bethany hates it. She thinks it sucks.”

“She hates it? How come?”

“She says it’s not as good as the book.”

“The book? What book?”

“You know – Hamlet.”