A visit to the Bate Collection: historical instrument museums as a resource for today’s performer

A visit to the Bate Collection: historical instrument museums as a resource for today’s performer

On Wednesday 5th July 2017 the recorder department at the Royal College of Music (RCM), London, visited the Bate Collection at the University of Oxford’s Faculty of Music to explore their collection of historical instruments. Since the RCM’s Museum of Music is closed for redevelopment, this was an opportunity for us to interact with a collection that holds some very notable recorders in excellent condition and unusually, that allows all of its instruments to be played. During our visit we also discussed why museums and instrument collections are so important for historically informed performers with curator Andrew Lamb.

The Bate Collection, open to visitors Monday-Friday, 2-5pm, was founded when Philip Bate donated his collection of around 300 wind instruments to Oxford in 1968. Bate himself, an amateur clarinetist, was a lifelong instrument collector and a pioneer of the scientific study of the history, development and construction of musical instruments. He wrote some significant texts on the oboe, flute, clarinet, trumpet and trombone - but unfortunately not the recorder! Since then, the museum has been augmented by other significant collections including the Edgar Hunt collection of recorders.

Before we could play the historical recorders, Andy wanted to get us thinking about our attitudes and preconceptions towards antique instruments. He asked us “how do you feel about instruments in museums, especially when you come to play them?” We generally agreed that we feel impressed and awed by the calibre, age, prestige and playing condition of an instrument. For example, after my colleague Sára played a harpsichord she exclaimed “Oh wow!” when she was told that she had just played Mr Handel’s harpsichord (London, William Smith, c.1720). Andy, very amused, then told us that in his opinion there is no such thing as ‘Handel vibes’ and that we should dismiss all romantic notions when playing instruments in museums. Instead he suggested that we focus on using the sensory experience to develop a profound understanding and insight into what we call historical performance practice.

For example, do we think it’s more informative to explore ‘the hardware’ in an instrument museum or to visit a library and read primary sources to gain insight into performance practice? Typical texts for recorder players include ones by Sylvestro Ganassi (Opera intitulata Fontegara, 1535) Jacques-Martin Hotteterre (Principes de la flute traversière, ou flute d'Allemagne, de la flute à bec ou flute douce, et du haut-bois, 1707) and Johan Joachim Quantz (Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere zu spielen, 1752), for example. But what does it actually mean when Ganassi describes a trill as either tender or lively (Suave or Vivace)? The problem is that we do not have a shared vocabulary for describing musical sound - a description does not mean the same thing to different people. By extension, we cannot put the sound of historical instruments into words, since working with musical instruments is personal and subjective. Hearing recordings of these instruments can go some way to remedying this but even then we are not receiving the direct sensory feedback from the instrument as we play it. This is the crucial ingredient that makes playing instruments in museums such a special experience: by playing each recorder, we are able to gain a feeling of their character which transcends words. Of course primary sources offer us crucial academic information, for example on the playing of ornaments and diminutions, but there will always be question marks surrounding the descriptive sections of treatises. Playing historical instruments can therefore bring us closer to fully understanding that which we try to emulate in our playing.

However, we encounter a problem when we wish to perform on original instruments like the ones in the Bate Collection. These historical recorders are not perfect. They are often damaged or have deteriorated and, unsurprisingly, were not made to be played with modern instruments which are often made according to tuning systems that match neither our 'modern' nor 'baroque' pitches. This conflicts with the trend in contemporary performance of aiming for ‘perfection’. We have grown so accustomed to listening to our favourite recordings which have been edited from multiple takes, that when we come to hear live performances they often fail to meet the harsh expectations upheld by our ears. Performers expect perfection from themselves and from their instruments, and audience members expect perfection from performers. Playing on original instruments is undoubtedly an important factor for 'authentic' performance, but since these expectations have become as important to us as authenticity, is it better to leave the instruments in the museums and content ourselves with cultivating authenticity through studying style from primary sources?

An answer to this lies in how similar our modern copies are to the historical originals. Our teacher María Martínez Ayerza expressed this very simply when she played the Bassano basset, commenting on her first time playing an original renaissance recorder that she was relieved and satisfied that it felt and sounded very similar to some of her favourite modern copies. But we as recorder players are making more and more demands of our instrument makers; we want our recorders to be chromatically perfect and louder than ever before. Is this going too far, and should we consider moving closer to the historical instruments we have surviving? For example, after playing the Bressan alto, also known as the Edgar Hunt recorder, there is an obvious difference between it and our modern recorders - apart from anything else, it does not have double holes for the last two fingers. This makes the lower chromatics much less reliable but also gives them a very special colour which we have completely lost today.

In conclusion, my first experience of playing historical recorders was very rewarding. After our discussion we were very focused on the feedback we felt from the recorders, and of course their sound, which made the experience more sensory and less cerebral and academic than it might otherwise have been. We came away with a lot to reflect on. For example, I noticed that I didn’t question the characteristics of  these instruments in terms of liking or disliking them, the way I often do with a modern recorder. I accepted them as they are without wishing for something more or less. This experience was a very different type of learning for us: we were not studying in the library, rehearsing, or practising, and this new approach gave us a lot of food for thought. It thoroughly introduced my colleagues and I to the merits of interacting with instrument collections and positively changed our perception of historical instruments in museums.

Summer Alp is a recorder player and historical oboist who has been studying at the Royal College of Music, London. Her musical interests range from fourteenth -century polyphony and renaissance consort music to Baroque music in Latin America, and classical orchestral repertoire. Summer enjoys collaborating with colleagues to produce large scale projects, for example, an innovative production of Handel’s Theodora in December 2016. She has recently become interested in writing about music and enjoys this as an aspect of historically informed performance.

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