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Recorder31 Day 12 | An Interview with Robert Ehrlich

Recorder31 Day 12 | An Interview with Robert Ehrlich

Late last year, Yale University Press published a monumental new book considering the history of the recorder from its earliest beginnings right up until the 20th Century. Today's Recorder31 interview comes from Robert Ehrlich, who co-wrote the book with David Lasocki.

Over to Robert to tell us more...

Firstly, for any readers who haven't come across your work, please briefly introduce yourself and what you do!

RE: I play, teach and write about the recorder. Musically, my formative influences were studying music in Cambridge, my time in Walter van Hauwe’s class in Amsterdam, and working with my colleagues in the trio sonata group The Cambridge Musick, which some readers might remember from the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1993 I settled in Leipzig to work at Mendelssohn’s Conservatory, now the Hochschule für Musik und Theater, but I still have strong ties to the UK—family, regular teaching visits to the Guildhall School in London, and concerts, last season in Edinburgh and Cardiff, for example.

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Robert Ehrlich, lecture-recital in Daegu, South Korea, May 2019. Photo: Keimyung University Daegu

Your recent publication for Yale University Press, simply entitled The Recorder, was co-written with prolific recorder academic David Lasocki. How did the book come about, and why do you think such a comprehensive history of the instrument is important in today's recorder scene?

RE: Yale first approached me over 20 years ago, probably because I had published several provocative articles about the modern social history of the recorder. They were interested in a book looking beyond organology, repertoire or performing practice to questions such as: Who played the recorder at various times in history? Where did they play what kind of instruments, and how did this relate to wider musical and social developments? I immediately passed this enquiry on to my long-time mentor and friend David Lasocki, who accepted the challenge, kindly inviting me to contribute a chapter on the 20th Century. The basic shape of the book was already clear by about 2005, but then we both took on new and demanding responsibilities, in my case being elected Principal of the Hochschule in Leipzig and then of the Hanns Eisler School of Music in Berlin. So we hit the pause button for well over a decade. Shortly after I returned to teaching full-time in autumn 2019 the Covid-19 pandemic swept over us all. David and I made the best of enforced isolation by doubling down on the book—we became each other’s sparring partner, discussing every point, indeed every sentence by email and on long Zoom meetings. Suddenly the book was finished! It’s the first comprehensive history in any language to be published since Edgar Hunt’s seminal "The Recorder and its Music" (1962, revised 1977); we thought it was high time to bring together the most important research of the past half-century in a single volume.

In her epilogue for The Recorder, Michaela Petri describes the recorder as "an ideal instrument for today", and indeed your chapter focusses on the recorder's rediscovery and revival in the twentieth century...

RE: stopping, as some critics have been quick to notice, at the Millennium, so the book doesn’t attempt—quite deliberately—to cover the most recent developments. David and I both feel these are well covered in established journals like American Recorder, Recorder and Music, Tibia and Windkanal, not to mention on social media, and current debate needs time to settle down before it can be analysed in an appropriate manner for a book of this kind.

In your chapter, you don't shy away from discussing negative public attitudes towards the recorder following its use in primary education. This is a subject which has been covered in British media in recent months, with features on several mainstream TV news programmes; underlying the discussion is a worry for the decline of music education in general. If the recorder is to continue to be used in this context, is there anything that you think would need to change in order to protect its reputation and reinforce its significance for young players?

RE: This is a controversial issue, which I write about at some length in the book, comparing the British experience with, for example, developments in Holland, Switzerland and Germany. The school recorder was invented in Germany in the early 1930sa great success in terms of popularising the instrument, but the Volksblockflöte, or "people’s recorder" was an incredibly crude product, badly misused in Nazi propaganda. This left a problematic legacy, not least the dreaded so-called „German“ fingering system. When Edgar Hunt pioneered the introduction of school recorders with "English" fingering in Britain he found himself at loggerheads with the Dolmetsch family, who were initially concerned that the historically based, traditional recorder might suffer as a result. Today, I think we can see that both protagonists had good points to make. Like so many others I too benefitted from class recorder playing at school. There can be no doubt that the decline in school singing and recorder playing in recent decades has deprived many children of the chance to discover the joy of making music together! But familiarity has definitely bred contempt. Everybody thinks they know what a recorder is, and their thoughts are often negative. Fifty years ago playing the recorder was often seen as a quaint, civilised occupation, described affectionately by writers ranging from Kingsley Amis to Umberto Eco, but today many people’s first reaction is to reach for their earplugs. My experience is that recent generations of qualified recorder teachers have led to a substantial improvement in teaching standards. Now I wish that educational authorities would pay attention to the excellent work being done by recorder professionals across the country, and invest in longer-term music education projects, ideally within the core school curriculum.

Next week in Recorder31, we will be featuring the finalists of this year's SRP/Moeck Solo Recorder Competition. Some years ago you were the winner of this competition, and since then you have had a very busy teaching career alongside your performance and academic work. What's one piece of advice you would offer to the finalists (and indeed other young professional players)?

RE: Add further strings to your bow! For example: developing your teaching and communication skills is essential, as indeed it is for all musicians. Improving your keyboard playing is almost as important, not just for understanding how a melodic line relates to its bass line, but also to help with playing polyphonic music, and of course in order to accompany your pupils. If you hope to work as a freelance player, you should ideally be able to double, for example on baroque oboe, baroque bassoon or traverso—I admit to having failed completely with all three, but I did at least learn how these instruments work, which helps a lot when playing together in chamber music. 

Do you have any other publications or projects on the horizon which you can share with us?

RE: I've had three main things on my mind of late. Just finished is an essay on "The Dutch Recorder Sound" expanded from the more concise material in the Yale book, for a wide-ranging volume "Early Music in the 21st Century" to be published in 2024 by Oxford University Press. A continuing challenge is finding good solutions for the Bach cantata performances at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. Andreas Reize, the wonderful new Thomaskantor, keeps raising the qualitative bar, so it’s an incredible privilege to play these masterworks under his baton with the St. Thomas choir and the Gewandhaus orchestra. As Bach was appointed Thomaskantor in 1723 many current performances take place not only in the original places, but also 300 years to the day after the cantata’s premiere. The specific recorder challenge is that the Gewandhaus orchestra plays modern instruments at the high pitch of A443, which means we often have to find different solutions to those which work with a baroque orchestra at a lower pitch. Finally, I’m enjoying practicing the French baroque repertoire again after several years of neglect, and look forward to returning to Cardiff with a French programme next season.

The Recorder by David Lasocki & Robert Ehrlich is in stock now, and available to order online today!


The Sound of Recorder Music!

Each day this month we're highlighting an audio clip of a recorder from our extensive range. This weekend the focus is on alto recorders, so here's some sounds from the Küng Studio Alto in Pearwood. Listen to the clips below or follow this link to find out more about this instrument.

Vivaldi La Notte:

Bach Sarabande:


Previous article Recorder31 Day 13 | A Message from Chris Butler
Next article Recorder31 Day 11 | Awesome Altos!

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