Recorder: The Violinist’s Gentle Companion

“Why do you need the recorder when you already have violin and guitar?”  These were the words of a former orchestra conductor when I initially announced that I had decided to pick up the recorder due to my passion for Baroque music.  When I responded that I loved Baroque music and wanted to play more of it, he firmly responded, “But you can do that on the violin.”  I smiled and gently but firmly replied that while this was true, I still wanted to go through with the recorder.  And go through I did with no regrets to this day!

Throughout my three years of playing this sweet and gentle instrument, I have often been confronted several times by individuals who assume that I have gone to recorder because I know I cannot make it on my other two instruments, especially violin — my primary instrument.  When I initially made the decision to learn the recorder (and the guitar, too), I never intended it to be a refuge from failure, nor did I intend it to overshadow violin.  Rather, I took it on not only as a “lighter” instrument after all that violin/guitar rigor, but also as a means of expanding my musical horizons and skills.

Little did I know that the latter take on the instrument was perfectly in line with historical fact.  In my musicological readings, I have discovered that in the Baroque Era, the recorder was never a primary or stand-alone instrument for musicians.  According to Bernard Thomas in the preface to The Baroque Solo Book, his outstanding and exhaustive compilation of unaccompanied solo recorder music:

“…. today, for the first time in the history of western music, we have many professional musicians who play only the recorder.  In previous ages the recorder was, generally speaking, either an instrument for amateur music-making, or one played as an alternative by professional players of the flute or oboe (18th century) or cornetto or shawm (16th century).”  (page ii).

This greatly surprised me since I was fully aware of today’s recorder professionals; I had always thought that, like them, the recorder players of long ago played and made their living solely on the recorder.  I proceeded to ask a professional recorder player I know about it a few days later, and he confirmed that this was a genuine historical fact.   Later on during Internet research on my leisure time, I stumbled across a comprehensive website regarding the life and times of Vermeer, and in a section covering the recorder, the author mentioned the same premise as Thomas, but with a different twist:

“In the Baroque period, almost all professional recorder players had to earn their living from playing several instruments and were primarily oboists or string players (emphasis added), occasionally concentrating on more unusual instruments.”

(http://www.essentialvermeer.com/music/recorder.html)

That did it!  Being the accomplished violinist that I am, I was immediately “hit in the face” (in the positive light!) in reading the portion regarding string players playing the recorder as a secondary instrument.  That was exactly what I was doing and my take on the instrument.  I was both ecstatic and fascinated to know that violinists and musicians in general before me had been doing what I was and am still doing.  Furthermore, when I went for my first recorder lesson, my teacher highly encouraged that I keep up with the violin as my primary instrument, not only because of my skill on it and the historical fact presented above, but also because the violin is the “backbone” of the Baroque era in the respect that all Baroque music is influenced by it.

So there.  Playing the recorder and other instruments with violin (and voice now) as the primary one is perfectly in line with historical fact.  And I am most proud of it.  After all, the foremost goal of HIPP is to be historically accurate, isn’t it?

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