ou must know that all musical instruments […] have less value than the human voice. For this very reason we strive to learn from it and imitate it.” This is the opening sentence to the most important explicit recorder instruction book of the Renaissance. Printed in Venice in 1535, the “Opera Intitulata Fontegara” still sets standards for our understanding of music and especially for virtuoso playing with diminutions. The recorder is at the center of this first major work by Sylvestro Ganassis, but it does not contain ready-made pieces that could be performed. Rather, it is a stylized snapshot of the practice of diminution at that time, which is to be re-experienced in this concert in its own transmissions and improvisations. According to the clear instruction from the first chapter of the Fontegara, the instruments’ main task here is to “imitate the human voice with all its faculties” and Ganassi is convinced that the recorder can succeed in this feat.
Andreas Böhlen – recorder; direction | Tabea Schwartz – recorder | Ivo Haun – voice | Félix Verry – renaissance violin | Claire Piganiol – double harp
Vlog August 2022 on “Singing with the flute!” – Sylvestro Ganassis Fontegara
A short cell phone video of Didier Samson as a teaser from the September 2022 concert. Andreas Böhlen and Felix Verry
Professor Andreas Böhlen – recorder player and jazz saxophonist
Thomas Christ (TC): In your fields of activity you have exploded the boundaries of early music and are also at home in modern jazz with or through the art of improvisation. With pleasure would we know how it all started for you – how did you come to the recorder? Or better, why did you stick with the recorder?
Andreas Böhlen (AB): When I was six years old I really wanted to play the recorder and persisted until I got an instrument- and I have been playing with great pleasure ever since! It was part of me from the beginning. I was particularly taken with the chamber music. I also wanted to start playing the saxophone at an early age, and when I was 10 it was finally possible. That meant a different circle of friends, different music, different rehearsal times – and therefore there were almost no direct points of contact in my youth and also in my studies. Both instruments continue to provide me with daily inspiration and wonderful experiences and discoveries.
TC: You are considered a master of improvisation – this learnable skill was part of the basic studies of all musicians in the Renaissance, but also in the Baroque period. Why do you think this discipline does not have the same level of attractiveness among Schola graduates today and has rather mutated into an exceptional talent?
AB: I would rather call other colleagues true masters of improvisation, but I love improvisation and being at the mercy of the moment – despite all the preparation. When improvising, you have to listen and make music differently than when playing written music. This approach, and with it the result, fascinate me very much.
I am not (yet) in a position to judge whether this discipline does not have the same degree of attractiveness among graduates. I do see a great interest and quite high level in many of them, and also an awareness among recorder students that improvisation in various facets is an essential part of the “skillset” expected today.
TC: So-called cross-over projects, in which early music artists experiment with new forms of communication and thus also address a new audience, seem to have been a great concern of yours for a long time – although you then switch from the recorder to the saxophone. Do you dive into a new, different world there, or how would you describe that improvisational overlap of early music with modern jazz?
AB: I wouldn’t necessarily call my projects cross-over myself, but I do dare to juxtapose early music and jazz and also draw inspiration from the other “genre” in each case. In my experience, early music musicians are strongest in their métier and jazz musicians in theirs. I usually find the sharpening of a
particular historical style more interesting than the mixture of many styles. I often find a confrontation of different genres exciting when dealing with different styles. If material from jazz, for example, then forms the starting point for a “historical” piece and vice versa, one sometimes finds oneself on wonderfully thin ice.
TC: A historical question from a flute layman: at what point does one begin to play the flute “traverso” and what was the main reason for this development, which led to the near-displacement of the recorder in orchestral classical music? Did everything just get louder and louder?
AB: On this subject, I’m sure other people can give a much more competent answer than I can. Nevertheless, an attempt at an answer: I would like to claim that both types of flute existed in non-European music much earlier than in European music. In the latter, the transverse flute and recorder coexisted for a long time, though probably not in common consorts during the Renaissance. The transverse flute then rose from a military instrument to an instrument of the nobility at the end of the 17th century. Hotteterre with his Principes de la flute traversiere and the instrument making skills of the entire Hotteterre family certainly played a significant role here. The transverse flute can blend with the singing voice in a different way than the recorder, mainly because of different articulation possibilities. It also has more dynamic possibilities, which became significant for larger performance venues and cast sizes.
Perhaps a very gentle way of starting and ending notes came into fashion, which the transverse flute can implement much better than the recorder? And then, at the same time, the baroque oboe was invented with all its possibilities! In addition, the transverse flute, which was very expensive compared to the recorder, became a status symbol of the upper class in the early 18th century.
For me, by the way, all these are no reasons not to devote myself to the recorder!
TC: And finally, my favorite question about rediscovering Renaissance music. As is well known, Baroque music has enjoyed great popularity for several decades, both on the radio and in the opera world – can you imagine a similar development for Renaissance music, or does it tend to remain in a mediation niche with its primarily intimate character?
AB: That is certainly due in large part to the individual artists, and not least to their interest in how and where they want to perform their music. I can imagine that Renaissance music can be very attractive today precisely because of its often exclusive character at the time. But there is still a lot to do for the mediation, because it is mostly superficially quiet and unobtrusive music. It usually takes a long time to decipher layer after layer of this music. But exactly this process is wonderful, for musicians and listeners alike! Renaissance music, in my experience, is often composed for a particular place and may well work very differently in other spaces. If you can manage to foster a certain spirit of discovery in the audience, Renaissance music has a lot to offer, because it needs more audience participation than later music.
“I’m in … ” by David Fallows on “Singing with the Flute!”, Aug 2022.
I never really understood Ganassis Fontegara. As a student who wanted to learn ornamentation, I much preferred to reach for a compendium like Bovicelli’s much later Regole (1594), in which the variations were based on real compositions by Palestrina, Rore, and others. I could play through those with joy and practice for hours. In contrast, Ganassi offers only various ways to embellish cadences, some of which are so obtuse and others so complex that I didn’t want to bother trying to figure out exactly how they were supposed to work, although at the same time I was working really hard to understand the somewhat more complicated rhythms of Stockhausen’s first four piano pieces. I just couldn’t see through the meaning. This may explain why I never became a virtuoso recorder player. In this concert we can hear recorder players who have obviously seen through the meaning; and I am very much looking forward to hearing them.
There were other irritating details at Ganassi. Nowhere in the whole book is there an omen. Somehow this contributed to my impression of dullness. And his supposedly seriously thorough discussion of the use of tongues blew me away. He begins by stating that the life of every wind player begins and ends with the use of tongue. As a former French horn player, I knew this all too well. But then he lists four different ways of using the tongue, whichbecause I had known for a long time that at least twenty such ways were needed. And the worst part is that he seems to be saying that changing the vowel sounds can affect the sound. That seemed (and still seems to me) to be pure guru talk. And once again, I look forward to someone pointing out how ignorant I was (and still am).
(Translation: Marc Lewon)
1. qual dolcezza giamai – Adrian Willaert (1490-1562)
Madrigali a cinque voci
, Venice 1538, no.1, fol.3v
2. Amor mi fa morire – Adrian Willaert
Il secondo libro de madrigali
Venice 1534, no.1, fol.4r
3. ben chè’l misero cor – Philippe Verdelot (c. 1482-c1530)
Il primo libro di madrigali di Verdelotto
, Venice 1537, no.12, fol.16r-17v
4. Improvised Ricercata
5. Vita de la mia vita
Il primo libro di madrigali di Verdelotto
, Venice 1537, no.16, fol.23r-24r
6th Douce Memoire – Jacques Buus (c1500-1565)
Il primo libro di Canzoni francese
Venice 1543, fol.10v
7. Improvised Ricercata
8. pass’e mezo antico secondo, n.15, fol.13v – Antonio Gardane (1509-1569; editor).
9 Le forze d’hercole, no.7, fol.7v
10. gamba gagliarda, no.6, fol.6v
Intabolatura nova di varie sorte de balli da sonare
, Venice 1551
11. improvisations on pass’e mezo and gamba gagliarda
12th Ricercar IV – Giulio Segni da Modena (1498-1561)
Musica Nova accomodata per cantar et sonar sopra organi; et altri strumenti, composta per diversi eccellentissimi musici
Venice 1540, fol.13v
13. Ancor che col partire
Cipriano de Rore (1515/16-1565)
Madrigali a quattro voci, Libro primo,
Venice 1547, no.28, fol.15v
14. improvised ricercata
15 Vecchie letrose – Adrian Willaert
Canzone Villanesche alla Napolitana
, Venice 1545, no.5, fol.3v
16. sempre mi ridesta – Adrian Willaert
Canzone Villanesche alla Napolitana
Venice 1545, fol.1v
Historical Museum Basel