Recorder and Flute: Bugs Bunny vs. Daffy Duck? Part 1

— “Wabbit Season!”

— “Duck Season!”

— “Wabbit Season!”

— “Duck Season!”

Choking on laughter, I watch this signature moment in the famous Chuck Jones Looney Tunes short, “Rabbit Fire” while taking a vocal break after twenty minutes of singing. Indeed, Bugs and Daffy are always engaged in this chose-shave rivalry, constantly antagonizing each other and exploiting each other for their own advancement. Soon my eyes stray from the television screen to my recorder case, and with my eyes stray my thoughts — half to the cartoon short at hand, half to my recorder.

Although it may not be clear to the outside observer at this point, I begin to see a connection between the cartoon and my recorder. Throughout my duration of playing the recorder, I have noticed how many musicians, print sources, etc. portray the instrument as a sort of weaker rival to its sister instrument, the traverse flute, both in the past and present. In general, the recorder is viewed as “far inferior” to the flute with regards to technical abilities/deficiencies, and that it was quickly superceded by the traverse flute in the 18th century because of these factors. Nancy Toff, for example, dubs the recorder “relatively characterless” — very strong — in the “Recorder vs. Flute section (pages 188-189) in her excellent flautist’s reference book, The Flute Book: A Complete Guide for Students and Performers, exposing all possible flaws of the instrument while extolling the flute as far superior.

My own personal experience in the music world has often been consistent with these print sources. While the majority of flautists — both students and professionals — I have run into laud me for playing the recorder and strongly disagree with Toff’s opinion, several cling to the mentality I have described above. These select few find it pointless to revive an instrument that is “inferior” to the flute and sometimes feel threatened at the thought of recorder players rightfully playing/claiming Baroque recorder pieces — in which the flute has long been substituted — as their own repertoire. In the words of one modern flautist I encountered, “What are you trying to prove, reviving a dead instrument that was easily taken over by the flute? The flute was and is far superior, so bringing back the recorder makes no sense. If the Baroque masters had had the option of choosing the flute instead of the recorder for their recorder pieces, they would have immediately done so. So recorder pieces are rightfully OUR pieces, and you guys have no business trying to take them back from us and say they are YOUR repertoire.”

Taken aback by her harshness, I composed myself and began to speak about the premises presented in my posts, “Recorder — The Violinist’s Gentle Companion” and “Breaking News: Lost Vivaldi Concerto Discovered”: The recorder was always a secondary instrument; that many pieces were deliberately written for interchangeability in instrumentation; and that adapting to performance needs in instrumentation was a common practice during the Baroque era. I especially highlighted the fact that many flute pieces were deliberately written such that they could be transposed up a minor third or perfect fourth for recorder suitability, a premise that I had concluded after much research on the subject. I also pointed to the invention of the voice flute — a tenor recorder in D (the same key as the traverso) — deliberately intended for playing traverso repertoire on the recorder. Finally, I reassured the perturbed flautist that the goals of the recorder world are not to usurp the flute as a whole by not allowing flautists to perform works originally composed for the recorder.

Indeed, I concluded, in line with Baroque practice, why cannot recorder and flute players share the same pieces? That way, we would not only be in line with historical practice, but could also find common ground to relate. My listener was dumbfounded and embarrassed by my words, proceeding to back off.

Enough personal testimony. Now for the facts. Taking a look at some source material — both written and concrete — it is obvious that although the recorder was gradually eclipsing to the flute, it still held a prominent place in musical society as a secondary instrument. Not only did composers write several original compositions for it, but — as I have noted in my previous posts — deliberately wrote pieces such that they could be transposed to fit the recorder’s range, . Furthermore, when the instrument’s eclipse was inevitable, instrument makers made their own clever attempts to secure its survival. For example, Baroque woodwind instrument makers devised the voice flute — or tenor recorder in D — such that flute works could be performed on the recorder without transposition. These instruments were highly popular in France, where the flute literally reigned as king of all instruments. See the following links and video:

On the other hand, the renowned English woodwind maker Thomas Stanesby, Jr., devised yet a more plausible solution which never quite made it past the production phase:

So, as Phillippe notes, this new tenor recorder with a traverse flute foot joint was Stanesby’s attempt to secure the survival of the recorder in its eclipse to the flute. Unfortunately, clever or not, this invention would never take hold, and two more centuries would elapse before the recorder would again become a prominent player in the classical music world.

To be continued ……

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