The Bressan Recorders

In the archaeology of a thousand years from now, the detritus of our century will contain many mysteries, and one of those will be recorders, thousands of recorders, plastic and wooden, and, if we assume the loss of data from some gigantic server collapse, the meaning of these artifacts will present a massive interpretive challenge. Why are there so many sizes, why are there such odd keys, and just what did our ancestors do with them.

We might have some tattered remains of Abracadabra Recorder or similar in glass cases in the British Library, and maybe page two of a Moeck catalogue will turn up in a car, or autonomous arial vehicle, boot sale, but we could be in the same position as we are nowadays when we look at the recorder artifacts in our present-day museums. What were they used for ?…

Some conclusions will be obvious. A case of recorders from 16th century Italy with a scored consort makes perfect sense, but as recorders proliferated and spread, questions arise. For example, what was a voice flute for. Bressan left us thirteen examples, all of which have a range of an octave and a sixth. We now use them as a substitute for baroque flute, but Bressan’s instruments could not play traverso repertoire. Besides, Bressan was perfectly capable of making a two-octave baroque recorder, so why didn’t he make a two-octave voice flute? Presumably because the context of the baroque voice flute at the time did not require two octaves. A broken consort instrument perhaps.

Bressan’s basses follow the same lines, a range of an octave and a sixth, and six surviving, so they were presumably widely used, but what for? Too quiet for continuo, so leads us to a consort instrument again. Then we have the mystery of the Bressan soprano in B flat. There are no English C descants, and there are two beautiful B flat tenors by Stanesby. Here the water is slightly muddied by the ’flute a quatre’ mention in the suites by Dieupart, but how could a tenor in B flat from England influence the decision of a French Baroque composer to write for a flute a quatre in France? One again, I might suggest that an English consort might have had a top line on a B flat soprano, and one of the middle lines played by a B flat tenor.

As a maker, I have always taken the first step with a new model of making an exact copy of the original before adapting it to the modern demand for A440/415, double holes etc. In this way I have ended up with a collection of instruments after Bressan and Stanesby in the original pitch of A405. [By the way, it seems to me that the spurious pitches of A415 and A466 have only sprung into being since the invention of the transposing keyboard, where they lie conveniently a semitone either side of A440.] This gave me a set of B flat soprano, F alto, C tenor, B flat tenor, and F bass. A very nice consort, which was beautifully played by students from the Guildhall at the Blackheath show two years ago.

A few years ago, a couple of players asked why I didn’t make a baroque great bass in C. After all, the recorder world was full of them, so why didn’t I consider making a handmade copy after one of the originals? Well, what a can of worms that opened. The wonderful Recorder Home Page lists a Denner C bass, with no sign of where it was. Doesn’t exist, said a well-known maker of basses. Yet Mollenhauer market a Denner great bass, and the other larger makers all have great basses in both C and F. Commercial construct apparently, all arising from Friedrich von Heune who saw a gap in the market in the 1950’s and invented the keyed great bass as we know it, and for the larger makers they have been incredibly successful money spinners, with an atmosphere of authenticity that they don’t really deserve. Nevertheless, we have great basses from the 16th century, and presumably the baroque makers must have known about these, so why didn’t they make them? After all, they would have been on the lookout for new products in the same way as we do nowadays. Perhaps they did, and the instruments just didn’t survive, or at least, not in public view.

This leads us to Covid and lockdown project number five. I received a copy of David Lasocki’s excellent new book, ‘Not just the Alto’, and, in it, he speculates about the existence of the Baroque C bass.

There is evidence. James Talbot (1664–1708), Regius Professor of Hebrew at Cambridge University, mentions a pedal or double bass recorder. The auction catalogue of the possessions of the late Nicolas Selhof, bookseller, in The Hague in 1759 lists “a long bass recorder by P.I.Bressan (Une Flute douce longue de Basse)”, and another by Debey, and Lully scored for C bass in his operas. Besides, I needed a project, and I had a big piece of maple in the workshop that was begging for a purpose, so I sat down with a long piece of graph paper and drew a conjectural bore for a C bass, based on the F bass that I had already.

Some simple scaling, and a C bass emerged, a monstrous thing taller than me, with a strut for support, and the final bore exit emerging from the side of the foot joint, two widely spaced sets of fingerholes as seen in the Renaissance basses, a massive key and a long crook that just screamed ‘condensation issues’.

Now prototyping an instrument on this scale is devoutly to be avoided, so I was lucky that, after only one replacement centre, I had a working recorder, and could begin to explore what it could do. I didn’t expect a fully chromatic two octave great bass equivalent to a Paetzold, but I was pleasantly surprised that I could, with some adventurous fingering, get every note except the top C. The lowest notes are quiet, quieter than the Renaissance equivalent, but then I didn’t set out to make a recorder that was as loud as possible, just one that Bressan himself might have made, scaled up from his presumably commercially successful bass in F.

So, there we have the Bressan/Stanesby consort in A405. Soprano in B flat and alto in F from Oxford, C tenor from Chester, Stanesby B flat tenor from Oxford, F bass from Oxford, and C bass from my over-active imagination, but supported by contemporary references. A consort at A415 can also be supplied with any combination of the above.

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