Greensleeves Forever

EMILY S. JONES is administrative director of the Educational Film Library Association in New York, a small-boat sailor, and a recorder player in her spare time.

One of the many trials which a recorder enthusiast must bear is that most acquaintances, on learning his hobby, assume that he is talking about a record player and confuse him with a hi-fi fan. Recorder players may own record players, but their interest is in trebles and descants, not in tweeters and woofers. English-speaking recorder players think with envy of their colleagues in Germany, France, and Italy, where the instrument is known respectively as a Blöckflöte, flûte douce, or flauto dolce. It must be nice to be called a sweet flutist. Why the vertical or English flute is known as a recorder seems to be lost in the mists of Middle English, but it has something to do with a word meaning “to warble.” Presumably this is because the recorder can produce bird-like trills, but it can also do a good many other things, some of them delightful and others (particularly on high notes) appalling.

While do-it-yourself woodworkers, ceramists, painters, and cement layers are analyzed, encouraged, exploited, and ridiculed, do-it-yourself tootlers are left alone. The only periodical which takes an interest is the informal, offset-printed newsletter of the American Recorder Society, and since it is read only by recorder players, it cannot be regarded as having much publicity value. The indifference of the great commercial world is due largely to the fact that recorder players, whatever their incomes, are a poor market. The tootler buys one recorder and is set for years. Since soprano recorders can be had for five dollars up, and it is hard to spend more than fifty dollars for the best recorder, the initial outlay is small. There are no additional gadgets to lure the player or provide easy selection of Christmas gifts. The very ambitious can acquire more recorders — a whole consort, in fact, of soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, but most players find it sufficiently absorbing to try to master one instrument without struggling with two or three different ones. The only thing which lures the recorder player is music, and he soon starts to build a library. This is his chief extravagance, and he spends time and money poring over the sheets and books available at the local music store. The result of an hour’s search may be two Selections which he thinks (overhopefully) that he will be able to play, and the total cost comes to about two fifty.

There have been signs recently of a break in the iron curtain of commercial indifference to recorder players. Several ads have used recorders as props. One in the New York Times Magazine showed a whole family supposedly playing the different sizes: father on the bass, mother on the tenor, brother on the alto, and sister on the soprano. It would have been an encouraging sight except that they were all holding the instruments wrong — the left hand where the right should have been and vice versa. Anyway, it showed the right spirit.

Nobody knows just how many recorder players there are, but there are plenty, and more join the ranks every day in spite of the lack of promotion and the often outspoken opposition of their nearest and dearest.

The Sunday tootler learns to put up with lack of appreciation and to ignore people in the next apartment who bang on the wall. He knows that he has a right to pursue happiness in his own way. He also has a secret weapon: the knowledge that recorder playing is as contagious as Asian flu. A much-tried neighbor may drop in to pass a few tactful remarks about why does he play that thing. The tootler seizes the opportunity to show the neighbor how easy it is to play — “Why, you could play a tune yourself; here, let me show you.” The neighbor, who flunked out of piano lessons at the age of ten, protests he isn’t musical, but makes a try at Yankee Doodle. Sure enough, he can play a tune. The tootler, who hates to have anybody else handle his recorder, remembers that it is all in a good cause, and lures him on to Old Folks at Home. He also offers to loan him a do-it-yourself instruction book. Before long, the neighbor has bought himself a recorder and is working hard on Greensleeves. If he masters that, he is lost.

Greensleeves occupies a peculiar position in the recorder player’s repertoire. It is, to begin with, an easily recognized tune — more complicated than Yankee Doodle, and therefore more interesting. It is also terribly Elizabethan. Any amateur producer of Shakespeare who wants to get a nice authentic effect simply stations a recorder player behind the scenes to let loose with Greensleeves at more or less appropriate moments. But to the recorder player himself it represents a challenge. The melody, when properly played, sounds particularly well on the recorder, but it is not as easy as it looks. By the time the player is satisfied with his rendition of it, he has achieved a certain proficiency and has discovered that there are even more interesting versions of Greensleeves, involving two or three recorders or a full consort. This necessitates rounding up a group of players to take a whack at it. If the group survives Greensleeves, it starts turning the pages and finding other group arrangements of more or less familiar tunes, and pretty soon it is deep in the intricacies of Salinger’s Round or Lilibullero. from there it is only a step to Bach chorals, Purcell arias, and Mozart minuets. The tootler is on the way to becoming a chamber music performer.

But before the would-be consort player can plunge into Sheep May Safely Graze, he must corral the other players. That, of course, was why he was so patient with the uneducated neighbor who didn’t appreciate his playing. Now that the neigh-

bor is struggling through the early stages of Greensleeves, the player can look around for the other necessary members of his consort. The problem is not to find or create other players; the difficulty is to get the right ones. Probably he plays the alto himself, and has started the neighbor on the soprano. He can find plenty of other altos and sopranos — what he needs are tenors and basses. It promises to be a long and fruitless search, unless he resorts to luring players away from already existing groups. A good bass player could probably play every evening in the week and get free dinners thrown in. Apparently nobody wants to play the bass. Anyone who has tried it will know why.

Recorders are divided into two groups: the C instruments and the F instruments. Soprano, tenor, and a legendary monster called a great bass are C instruments; alto, bass, and the high-pitched little sopranino are F instruments. The fingering is different for the two groups, so that a soprano player with long enough fingers can switch easily to the tenor, while an alto player in theory can play the bass. Alto players are numerous, because the alto is the pleasantest to play as a solo instrument, but few of them want to take up the bass. An alto is about the size of a flute; the bass looks (and weighs) like a bassoon. The player has a cord around his neck hooked to the instrument to take some of the weight off his hands. A mouthpiece like the bassoon’s is inserted near the top of the long wooden tube. The finger holes are far enough apart to make rapid movement difficult, and if they aren’t all covered exactly correctly, no noise comes out at all. This is disconcerting for the puffing player.

The lowest note on the bass is the F below middle C, but for some mysterious reason the music is written an octave lower, so the player has to read the confusing bass clef where all the notes are on the wrong lines. In addition to these technical problems, the bass parts are almost invariably uninteresting. The alto player, used to the responsiveness of his own instrument, finds playing the bass rather like plodding through mud. However, if the group has three sopranos, five altos, one tenor, and no bass, it is obvious that somebody has to be sacrificed.

Once the group is assembled and somebody has been cajoled or browbeaten into playing the bass, on condition that he can play the alto some of the time, the next problem is to select a leader. It is quite likely that the person who assembled the consort is the obvious leader. If a selection must be made, however, it is better to choose the best musician rather than the most proficient player. By and large, Sunday tootlers are not musicians. Although strongly in favor of music, particularly that made by themselves, they know next to nothing about it. Many of them never learned to read notes until they took up the recorder. They take a distinctly pragmatic approach to all musical theory and notation; talk of major and minor keys, dominant and subdominant chords, harmony and dissonance, all goes right over their heads. Their freewheeling approach appalls most musicians, who seem to feel that players should know the name of the key in which their music is written. The nonmusicians think that if you know which notes to sharp or flat, that is all that is necessary. It is desirable, however, to have someone around who can hear four parts being played simultaneously, if not together, and tell which one forgot the repeat at the end of the eighth measure. Therefore recorder groups usually include one long-suffering, sweet-tempered (otherwise he would have resigned long since) person with a good ear and some musical training. His job is to get everybody started at the same moment, beat time with his foot while playing his own instrument, and explain any mysterious notations in the score. He also has to know when to ignore minor errors and when to cry out in agony at major ones. It is a very responsible position, requiring the tact of a diplomat combined with the forceful personality of a football coach.

Now that the group is organized, it faces the problem of finding some place to play. Since modern houses and apartments are singularly unsoundproofed, it becomes necessary to find either a sympathetic (or deaf) family or an empty house. Recorders, even a lot of them playing at once, do not produce a great deal of volume, but nonplayers seem to find the noise intolerably penetrating. One solution is to pick a suitable house from those owned by members of the group and then subsidize a trip to the movies for the nonplaying members of the family. In the long run, it may be cheaper to buy them all recorders and incorporate them into the group.

Regardless of lack of sympathy, recorder players tootle away together and separately. Having mastered the Elizabethan airs and dances, they move into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. From having been musical ignoramuses, they practically reach quiz-show levels in discussing the stage music of Purcell or the original scoring of the Fifth Brandenberg Concerto. For the first time, they find it easy to get one up on their hi-fi friends by tossing off casual references to Monteverdi, Chédeville, Loeillet, and Telemann. Since the hi-fi fanatics have abandoned Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms and are combing the pages of Schwann’s catalogue for more esoteric names, the effect, properly handled, can be considerable, particularly since the recorder player knows the composer’s dates (printed on the music) and can recognize the themes (he’s been practicing that slow movement for a month). He can talk like a musician, even if his friends refuse to admit he plays like one.