Until about a decade ago, students enrolling for the OCA musical composition course were sent a course-book, a set of cassette tapes and an inexpensive plastic descant recorder made of bakelite. These instruments – and there were many musicians who had doubts as to whether they were in fact musical instruments – had gained notable acceptance by the 1960s and were to be found in most primary schools. Enthusiastic teachers would organize and direct recorder groups. Young players would rehearse simple unison pieces that the teacher would challenge with solid piano accompaniments, for in those days primary school teachers could still play the piano as well as the recorder. Concerts would be arranged for parents and visitors in which a healthy balance was maintained between singing and recorder playing. In the more musically ambitious schools the singing might even be in two parts, emulating the highly popular 'Kodaly method' which had already become a part of Hungary's obligatory national education curriculum.
It was however the recorder playing which was more likely to stimulate a listener's bladder! The recorder presented relatively easy dextral manipulation for small hands, and the group activities fulfilled the needs of a school-room discipline, coordinated team-work, listening, social awareness, technical skills and creativity – all progenitors of a musical education which, when carried through into secondary and higher education, was admired by the wider worlds of business and industry.
Beyond all this there was a more serious revival of the instrument on which Henry VIII was a virtuoso performer and had an extensive collection. He instruments was one quite familiar to Shakespeare (Hamlet, Act 3), and an integral part of scores by Purcell, Bach, Telemann and other composers of those times. Arnold Dolmetsch began this renewed interest in the instruments in the 1920s, and his son Carl continued a vigorous activity, interrupted only briefly by WW2, commissioning exciting pieces from a galaxy of British composers for his Wigmore Hall concerts in London during the 1950s.
Interest spread beyond the routine treble recorder to revive all the other members of the old 'recorder consort' – sopranino, treble, tenor and bass. The fingering was modified and refined and the range of the instruments expanded. Many of the technical attributes of the flute, which had been an able substitute in the rediscovery of Baroque music during the 19th century, were incorporated into the technique.
Needless to say, new virtuosi have appeared, like Michala Petri in Denmark and the Dutchman Frans Bruggen for whom Luciano Berio wrote new pieces. Jill Kemp has recently recorded a recital of English recorder music for Music & Media, and to prove it is no longer only a musical vehicle for the classroom, I have just completed a new Quintet for recorder and strings for John Turner, another distinguished performer. His 70th birthday will be celebrated next month at the Alwyn Festival in Suffolk with a recital of some of the pieces he has commissioned over a long career, including music by the late composer-author Anthony Burgess. The recorder is very much alive, and still needs composers to challenge its potential.
Peter Haveland replied:
The early music and folk revival movement of the late 50s, 60s and early 70s produced many an accomplished performers if not full blown vertuosi, Richard Harvey being not the least amongst them. 2 October 2013
Andy Glover replied:
Strangely enough I was recently commissioned to compose a sonata for recorder player (Contra-bass, Tenor, Treble and Descant) and piano which is due for performance early next year (Earth-Stepper). It was commissioned by Caroline Jones and Charles Matthews who performed an older piece of mine in April this year. I have to admit I never thought that I would ever write for the recorder family when I began a composing career, or that I would ever want to, due to the squeeky intelligability of those 1960′s classroom efforts. Having said that it has been probably one of the most rewarding commissions I have ever fulfilled and am looking forward to working with Caroline and Charles on this work and a possible new piece that I have in mind. Never write off an old instrument especially when it is such a diverse and agile instrument as this. Bring on the serpent and the arclute next! 2 October 2013
I have fond memories of recorders. I was given one at the age of four for Christmas. By the afternoon I had managed to get a tune out of it (It was the folklike tune from the New World Symphony – how pretentious can one get). There was a knock at the door and a lady in uniform was there with a collecting box and a band were playing in the street below. "Can you help the Salvation Army?" she said. "Sorry " I said in all seriousness, "I'm not good enough yet. Can you come back when I've had more practice?" The story of my life I suppose. Later on when my wife to be and I met for the first time I plucked up courage to invite her to a concert of fourteenth century Florentine music by David Munroe who played a version of the recorder. (Don't say I don't know how to give a girl a good time). Munroe was absolutely brilliant and Jane and I were married six months later. If you want to hear blisteringly virtuosic recorder playing listen to Red Priest playing Vivaldi. 2 October 2013
Peter Haveland replied:
I guess this is about as far as you can get from the squeaky plastic recorder bands in most primary schools...but we all have to start somewhere! 3 October 2013