Unless we’re specifically talking about the population of the world under 14 years old, the recorder lacks recognition for all of the glory it encompasses. It is the true epitome of an underappreciated instrument.
Sure, flutes and other wind instruments are more critically and commercially successful. But what would the music world look like if not for the recorder? Think about it: a child’s first introduction to the world of music often comes through learning from recorder guidebooks for beginners. Those first, uncertain notes eked out on the plastic instrument may be squeaky and off-key, but they lay the groundwork upon which the future is built.
The importance of these first forays into musical experimentation cannot be understated, and as a gateway instrument, it is undeniable that recorders are a key component of our shared cultural of history. Would The Beatles ever have honed their passion and affinity for songwriting if their early life experiences had been different? Would Taylor Swift have reached the net worth she is currently enjoying if she had not been given the opportunity to learn to read music by practicing the recorder at a young age? Would any icon of the past hundred years have reached the same level of artistic influence and creative acumen?
Though it’s no question that the golden age of the recorder has been over for some time, its history as a respected musical instrument has been woefully forgotten as well. Groups of recorders played together are referred to as “consorts”, and in 17th century art the recorder was often portrayed as a phallic symbol. The infamously libidinous lech Henry VIII reportedly had a collection of 76 recorders, and though the recorder was so revered as to be played by kings, it was able to be appreciated by all segments of society–by the wealthy and on-trend, but also by those with less means.
According to Wikipedia, “the sound of the recorder is often described as clear and sweet, and has historically been associated with birds and shepherds.” Yes, shepherds. In fact, some of the earliest references to the recorder in literature date all the way back to the 15th century; for example, John Lydgate’s Temple of Glas, written in 1430, includes the prose, “These lytylle herdegromys Floutyn al the longe day…In here smale recorderys, In floutys.” This has been translated from ye olde English as “these little shepherds fluting all day long … on these small recorders, on flutes.”
Could part of the reason why the recorder is no longer taken seriously by the mainstream music establishment be due to its historical role in blue-collar farming communities? Has its artistic value been systematically discounted and devalued over the years because of its association with the proletariat workforce?
Though still the most popular instrument learned in schools, the recorder continues to face class-based indignities to this day. Violently blown into and abused by fumbling schoolchildren until they are dripping with spit, at the end of music lessons they are carelessly thrown in a pile in a storage cubby like a mound of dirty laundry. Though part of the recorder’s charm no doubt comes from its unpretentious modesty, the low standing and lack of respect it currently garners is a travesty.
Will the recorder ever be able to shake this elementary and lowbrow image and revive its former reputation of throbbing nobility? Will it ever be able to steal back the sex appeal which the flute has usurped? If any wind instrument deserves another moment in the sun, it’s the recorder–and we deserve to luxuriate in its inimitable sound in all of its full-grown glory. Make recorders great again!