Tot ziens, Frans

It’s been almost exactly two months since Frans Brüggen died. With his passing, an incandescent light of the early music world went out, though the deft touch and inspiration he gave to so many musical projects, musicians and music lovers will abide for a very long time. It has taken me an inordinate amount of time to write this small tribute to one of the most influential musicians in my life. Simply put, words failed.

Frans Brüggen was an extraordinary musician whose medium in the earliest part of his career just happened to be the recorder. In this, he was an inspiration to the rest of us who play it, not only for his radiant musicality but also because he put the instrument on the map without affectation or defensiveness. He didn’t seem to feel he had to prove anything – in his own inventive, elegant and committed way, he just made this simple-looking pipe sing and, in so doing, persuaded many who had previously doubted it that yes, in fact, this instrument could be just as musical an instrument as any other.

And when he’d had enough, which he described as ‘recordered out,’ Frans moved on to new Career and Personal Growth Opportunities. In this, too, he set a fine example: when you feel you’ve conveyed all you can through one artistic channel, switch it and move on. When you’re done, you’re done, and there’s no need for regret, no cause for shame. New discoveries and unexpected joys await!


Before I heard Frans, the first recorder player to impress me was a Danish woman named Irmgard Matthiesen, whose recording of Telemann sonatas I got when I was 13 or so. Her ornamentation of one particular sonata’s first movement was so gorgeous that I memorized and reproduced it every time I played the piece. When I finally decided I really ought to make up my own version, it felt like cheating on Irmgard. I wore out the grooves on that LP; the only disc more ‘played’ out in our house was the one accidentally destroyed by my younger cousins, who ran over it with the patio chaise-lounge.

But it was Frans’s playing which utterly blew me away. He was many notches more amazing than Irmgard, and his conquest was complete and everlasting. I first encountered him through the boxed LP set entitled Frans Brüggen and not very creatively subtitled, Frans Brüggen spielt 17 Blockflöten – because he played seventeen original 17th– and 18th-century instruments on the recording. What a revelation and inspiration it all was! Though I couldn’t have described it this way at the time, it seemed that the ideal alchemical balance had been struck between player, instrument and music, like some perfect artistic cocktail. I don’t remember exactly what music I first heard him play, but I remember Telemann fantasias and van Eyck sounding better than I could ever have imagined. I’m quite certain that his rendition of Andrew Parcham’s Sonata in G influenced my ongoing fascination with lesser known repertoire: Frans brought this eccentric little piece wholly to life, proving beyond any doubt that some respectful, inventive co-creation with a less familiar composer could produce quite fetching results.

Anyway, I bought all of his recordings and I listened to them incessantly. I still have them, in all their LP glory, as well as some of the reissued CDs. Plus, I got – and still have – The Poster, which was popular and amusing proof of the Rock Star status Frans had in the classical music world. The record company marketers capitalized on his sultry good looks by putting large photos of him on the front and back of the packaging, several more in the booklet, and a HUGE poster in the box. I didn’t actually ever put it up on my wall because frankly, it was so big it was scary; but from time to time, I’d take it out of the box and stare at it in adolescent, recorder-geeky rapture. After Frans died, I was pleasantly surprised to see that I still have it, as the evidence shows:

Frans & Al #2

Over the years, I met this unwitting mentor three times. In Toronto for a visit between my years of study in Basel, I went with my former teacher Hugh Orr to hear Frans in recital with Anner Bylsma and Gustav Leonhardt. I don’t recall them cracking even one smile onstage during the entire show, but they were captivating and utterly inspiring nevertheless. Hugh and Frans knew one another and, after the backstage greetings following the show, we were invited along for a meal at a swanky Toronto bistro. I spent the evening feeling simultaneously delighted and totally out of my depth, eating shrimp cocktail (not exactly a staple at home) and sitting across the table from this internationally famous musical hero of mine, who seemed to be a friendly, intelligent and interesting person, without arrogance or pretense. He also tried out the new Rudolf Tutz traverso I’d just brought back from Europe, which I hadn’t had a chance to show to anyone else who knew Baroque flutes. After several tootlings he pronounced it ‘very, very good,’ and asked me for the maker’s contact info. I was over the moon for weeks.

He must have had a remarkable memory for names and faces, given how many hundreds of them he must surely have met, because a year later he remembered me during his visit to the Schola in Basel, where I was still studying. And a few years later, knowing I’d be a fool not to take advantage of the opportunity, I signed up to play in a rare master class he’d agreed to give during another Toronto visit. It was a last chance moment: if he hadn’t already quit teaching by that point, he was very close to doing so. The insightful comments he made about Anne Danican Philidor’s Sonate pour la flute à bec were exactly what I needed to hear, and the quiet, unnecessary compliment he gave me afterwards has continued to be a radiant little beacon in darker, uncertain times since then.

I had a dream a few years ago, a vivid dream in which Frans was a central figure, and which echoed the ambivalence I was feeling about my musical life at the time. The dream has resurfaced in consciousness several times since then, and it popped sharply back into memory when I learned that Frans had died. It was set outside Humbercrest United Church, a popular Toronto recording venue in an east end neighbourhood. Frans was sitting in the back of a large black limousine parked in front of the church, waiting to go to the airport. I approached the car, the rear passenger door opened, and as I leaned in to say goodbye, Frans said I was very welcome to join him if I was heading to the airport too. For a second I wanted to take him up on the offer and just head away, anywhere, but it became clear that I needed to stick around a bit longer, so I declined. Sitting there in the limo, Frans looked very old and frail, and it was obvious that he was unwell (which I’d heard was indeed the case in the ‘real’ world). In the dream, as I wished him a good trip and shut the limo door, I also knew quite clearly that I wouldn’t be seeing him again. It was a bit spooky when, in the days following his death, I inadvertently came across this photo on the web:


Smooth travels, Frans, and thank you for everything.

Fun Times with The Friendly Giant

Like many Canadians born in the second half of the twentieth century, I spent a small but significant part of my childhood watching CBC-TV’s The Friendly Giant. As a preschooler, every weekday morning I was transfixed for fifteen minutes as Friendly invited us all to join him in his castle, chatted to his puppet buddies Rusty and Jerome, and read a book to us all. These days it’s difficult to imagine that any kid’s show could ever be focused around the reading of books. Reading a story with your friends – what a concept! Created by Wisconsin-born Bob Homme, who played Friendly, the show played in Canada for over twenty-five years and was marketed in parts of the US during the latter part of its run.

The other regular occurrence on The Friendly Giant was Music Day, when Friendly would play recorder trios with Patty and Polly Piper, two other puppet friends of indeterminate species (raccoons, I thought, or maybe cats).  Once a week, with tiny toy recorders of various sizes, they tootled, bobbed and weaved to music from the courts of Henry VIII or Charles II, dance tunes published in the 1500s, and/or something penned by J.S. Bach. Go figure. You couldn’t get away with that on TV these days even if you paid for the privilege.

Pre-school days ended and I abandoned Friendly for Yogi the Bear, Top of the Pops, Batman and the Addams Family (Carolyn Jones, may you rest in peace, you are still my hero). Then came high school, university, study overseas, and the return home to try making a living as a musician. I’d been doing that for a year or two when one day I got a call asking if I could come down to the CBC studios on Jarvis Street to play a session for an episode of [gasp] The Friendly Giant. The other people on the gig were my former teacher Hugh Orr, who had played on the show for years, and Bob Homme of course. I was over the moon – pretty close to where the cow flew in the show’s closing credits.

At this time they were still recording all the show’s music in the TV studios, with the mics and music stands set up three feet away from where the show was shot. So when I walked into the studio and saw the set with the ‘real live’ Jerome the Giraffe puppet lying inert on the floor, the distant past collided with the present in a good way and I pretty much went into an altered state. There right in front of me were the castle walls, the window through which Jerome visited, the shoe bag where Rusty the Rooster lived, and the miniature living room into which viewers were invited, with its fireplace, rocker and the big armchair ‘for two of you to curl up in’…and there was Friendly himself.  I remember making some Obvious Gig Novice comments such as ‘oh wow, look, those little chairs are so CUTE!’ and, ‘OMG was Jerome always orange and blue?’ but everyone seemed understanding of this, having had many other star-struck visitors on the set before me.  Introductions were made, the session’s music was discussed, and then Bob, Hugh and I sat down and ran through a few Praetorius dances a couple of times while the tape rolled. (Jerome lay on the floor without moving.) And that was that. Luckily for me I was part of several more shows over the next few years. As time passed Patty and Polly expanded their musical skills, sometimes played different types of music on other instruments, and I think they underwent name and character changes at some point, but early music continued in the repertoire loop until the show ended. And that was pretty cool.

Bob Homme was such a lovely man, unpretentious, laid back and kind, and he was an enthusiastic recorder player – he could always hold his own in consort music, and it was he who played the show’s theme song, Early One Morning. He was a clarinet player who grew up playing jazz, and a consummate professional with a real devotion to his work and a genuine respect for the intelligence of children. No dumbing down or talking two octaves higher for him.

Playing for that show was one of the most pleasant and easy-going yet totally professional gigs I’ve ever had the good fortune to be involved in. Not surprisingly it’s also proven to be one the most meaningful career credits in my bio for people who happen to read it. Popular culture in general, and a direct connection to happy childhood memories in particular, trumps just about everything else from CDs on fancy labels to concerts in fancy places. Food for much thought there. The music wasn’t flashy, the technology wasn’t much, the audience was very young, but the impact of Bob Homme’s vision and inventiveness was far-reaching and powerful. He received the Order of Canada in 1998, two years before his death, and in 2005 the Audio-Visual Preservation Trust of Canada designated the show as a Masterwork.

After the show ended a number of its puppets, props and costumes were put on display at the small museum in the CBC building down on Toronto’s Front Street. It was always fun to catch a glimpse of them whenever I was in the building. In 2007 most of the Friendly memorabilia was removed from the museum and a farewell afternoon reception was organized so people could drop by for a final look. Someone at the CBC called to ask if some recorder duets could be played throughout the event, and it was very touching to provide those with Colin Savage as people wandered in and out. There were a lot of visitors that day.

Many of the shows are there for the viewing on YouTube. Here’s one:

If you’re interested, check out Grant D. Fairley’s biography of Bob Homme, available through most book vendors.