Instruments

Devil’s Music and the Heavenly Symphony: A Historical Juxtaposition of the Recorder and Pipe Organ

The recorder and the pipe organ may sound harmonious together to the modern ear, but this was not always the case. From their origins in the medieval and early modern periods, the recorder and the pipe organ come from very different traditions within European music.

The history and technology behind the development of the recorder and pipe organ inform the cultural meanings attributed to these instruments. Music has been a site of contention and rejoicing throughout Western history; certain musical traditions have been associated with the transgressive while others have remained largely accepted. A historical investigation of early attitudes toward the recorder and pipe organ reveal vastly competing understandings of the sound of these instruments, and the emotions they could inspire.

Music was not featured in early Christian churches because instruments were considered secular, and therefore not suitable for worship. Since the medieval period, however, the pipe organ came to be associated with the expansion of Christianity and European churches. Following the influence of Gregorius, a Venetian cleric of the ninth century, early pipe organs became an integral part of Christian monasteries. They were an intrinsic aspect of monastic singing.  Beginning in Europe, these musical traditions soon extended to England. Yet the unsophisticated technology associated with the pipe organ meant it was often unwieldy and difficult to play, and influential theologians such as Thomas Aquinas rejected the organ on these grounds.1Douglass E. Bush and Richard Kassel, eds. The Organ: An Encyclopedia (New York: Routledge, 2006), 327-328.

As the technology of the pipe organ improved and it acquired a greater range of sounds, from the sonorous to the sweet, the pipe organ was gradually integrated into church worship. By the thirteenth century, the organ was a generally accepted part of many church services throughout Europe. Some medieval clerics used the Book of Prayers to describe the organ as the instrument most worthy for the worship of God.2Nicholas Thistlethwaite and Geoffrey Webber, eds. The Cambridge Companion to the Organ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), xi. Acceptance toward the pipe organ oscillated following the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, but it ultimately retained its position in sacred and liturgical musical traditions. In 1629, John Milton valorised the “angelic symphony” created by the pipe organ, and used the imagery of “Heav’ns deep Organ” to describe the birth of Christ.3John Milton, “Hymn on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” (1629). Organists, though employed by the government, played during church services as well as throughout the week, yet they were encouraged to play sacred rather than secular music.

It is interesting, then, to observe the competing attitudes toward the recorder during the early modern era. Unlike the pipe organ, the recorder remained an instrument very much associated with the secular – with popular culture – for much longer. An early modern listener would have understood the recorder to symbolise “delight in earthly pleasure,” something so worldly that it distracted from otherworldly endeavours.4Nicholas S. Lander, Recorder Home Page: History, 1996-2015 (accessed January 15, 2015), http://www.recorderhomepage.net/history/. As an instrument often played by minstrels and troubadours, and therefore associated with courtly feasting, merry-making, and weddings, it was very much a part of popular entertainments.  Indeed, such professional musicians relied on playing dance music and other secular music to make their living.5Howard Mayer Brown, “The Recorder in the Middle Ages and Renaissance,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Recorder, ed. John Mansfield Thomson and Anthony Rowland-Jones (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 18-20. And so, for Stephen Gosson, a satirist who lamented the social decay of London, the recorder represented a descent “from Pyping to playing, from play to pleasure, from pleasure to slouth, from slouth to sleepe, from sleepe to sinne, from sinne to death, from death to the deuill.”6Stephen Gosson, The Schoole of Abuse (London: Thomas Woodcocke, 1579), 24.

Perhaps the worldliness such commentators attributed to the sound of the recorder led others to associate similar emotions with the instrument. English diarist Samuel Pepys certainly found these worldly attributes in the tone of the recorder. Yet he did not associate this with depravity, but instead with a desirable expression of ardour. In 1668, Pepys described a theatrical performance he witnessed:

… that which did please me beyond anything in the whole world was the wind-musique when the Angell comes down, which is so sweet that it ravished me; and endeed, in a word, did wrap up my soul so that it made me really sick, just as I have formerly been when in love with my wife; that neither … I was able to think of anything, but remained all night transported, so as I could not believe that ever any music hath that real command over the soul of a man as this did upon me; and makes me resolve to practice wind-music and to make my wife do the like.7Diary of Samuel Pepys, February 27, 1667/1668

Pepys seemingly hoped to reinvigorate matrimonial passion by encouraging his wife to learn the recorder.8Christopher Marsh, Music and Society in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 56.  It was therefore imperative to draw a line which distanced the soulful and romantic emotions associated with such music from church and liturgical music.  Recorders may be transgressive, but sacred choral and organ music was not.

By the sixteenth century, recorders were often made for and played as part of a consort.  King Henry VIII, himself an avid recorder player, had a collection which comprised of “Recorders greate and smale in a case couered with blacke Leather and lined with clothe.”  Yet by the end of the seventeenth century, instruction books for the recorder began to emerge.9Edgar Hunt, “The Recorder and Its Music,” Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association 75 (1948-1949): 40 and 43. Many of the privileged classes who spent time at court already had amateur musical abilities on the recorder, but the publication of instructional material demonstrates how learning the recorder became democratised.  This, in turn, implies a growing respectability surrounding the recorder and its music, becoming, as it did, “the primary woodwind of the musically cultivated amateur.”10Herbert Myers, “Recorder,” in A Performer’s Guide to Renaissance Music, ed. Jeffrey Kite-Powell (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007), 55.

This was consolidated by composers such as J.S. Bach and George Frederick Handel, whose works for the recorder brought it beyond the realm of street or courtly music. The Baroque recorder sonata has been described as “something of a phenomenon,” as the majority were composed in Italy between 1690 and 1740. Some of this repertoire became much more technically demanding than its largely popular predecessors, and recorder players could also play some flute repertoire. Many other recorder sonatas were published for amateur musicians.11Anthony Rowland-Jones, “The Baroque Recorder Sonata,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Recorder, 51-52.

As the recorder became an instrument increasingly associated with genteel musicianship, the organ maintained its association with religious music.  In 1687, English poet and playwright John Dryden asked: “What human voice can reach / The sacred organ’s praise? / Notes inspiring holy love, / Notes that wing their Heav’nly ways / To mend the choirs above.”12John Dryden, “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day,” 1687.

For modern audiences, the recorder and pipe organ complement each other because they come from the same sound world.  And yet the recorder would likely not have been accompanied by pipe organ, but rather the harpsichord, and other instruments such as the viola de gamba.  Even so, it is revealing to reflect upon the changing connotations surrounding these instruments for the early modern ear.

– by Ana Stevenson

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1. Douglass E. Bush and Richard Kassel, eds. The Organ: An Encyclopedia (New York: Routledge, 2006), 327-328.
2. Nicholas Thistlethwaite and Geoffrey Webber, eds. The Cambridge Companion to the Organ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), xi.
3. John Milton, “Hymn on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” (1629).
4. Nicholas S. Lander, Recorder Home Page: History, 1996-2015 (accessed January 15, 2015), http://www.recorderhomepage.net/history/.
5. Howard Mayer Brown, “The Recorder in the Middle Ages and Renaissance,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Recorder, ed. John Mansfield Thomson and Anthony Rowland-Jones (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 18-20.
6. Stephen Gosson, The Schoole of Abuse (London: Thomas Woodcocke, 1579), 24.
7. Diary of Samuel Pepys, February 27, 1667/1668
8. Christopher Marsh, Music and Society in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 56.
9. Edgar Hunt, “The Recorder and Its Music,” Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association 75 (1948-1949): 40 and 43.
10. Herbert Myers, “Recorder,” in A Performer’s Guide to Renaissance Music, ed. Jeffrey Kite-Powell (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007), 55.
11. Anthony Rowland-Jones, “The Baroque Recorder Sonata,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Recorder, 51-52.
12. John Dryden, “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day,” 1687.