From The Director's Desk
Editorial Views and Opinions

Denner and the Bell Curve
Thoughts on the Craft of Historical Instrument Makers

Most of the letters which arrive at our workshop relate specifically to a customer’s immediate interests and receive a prompt reply. Some letters from our customer mailbag, however, address issues that are of broader interest to many of our customers and the early music world as a whole. This comes as no surprise to us, however; it has always been apparent to us that many of our customers are intelligent, well-informed people who not only play early music as a profession or advocation but are also intellectually curious about historical instruments, their makers, and the whole socio-cultural arena in which historically-informed performance practice takes place.

A recent letter from one of our long-time customers raised a number of very interesting points about historical instrument makers and what they might have thought about their craft. I am happy to present the following edited version of that letter and my own observations on those issues:

One of the thoughts that came to mind [during a recent hospitalization] was the [matter of] copies of [historical] instruments. All this came about courtesy of my [hospital] roommate and his guests discussing various baseball teams and what if this year’s team were to play such and such a team from way back when. While this did not exactly hold my interest, it did direct my attention to old instrument makers and copies.

There were many styles of renaissance recorders and then, suddenly [in the mid seventeenth century], the instruments changed and developed a different profile and came apart in several pieces. I can't ever recall anyone finding a Denner copy of a renaissance recorder scaled to his present day pitch. I feel that, for Mr. Denner; this was not what he wanted to do. What he did want to do was to improve the instrument. And in trying to improve the instrument, he was taking advantage of all the modern technology of his day.

This is where I think a great many [modern] instrument makers are missing the target. If you were to line up thirty recorders by Mr. X, the average of good, bad, and exceptional instruments would form a bell curve. The quality of recorder #1 as compared with that of recorder #30 would be dramatic. If you only selected recorder #1 to play, then that manufacturer would [in your experience] be a fine craftsman. Conversely, if you were only presented with recorder #30, you might con- sider using it as kindling. Now we do not have thirty Denner recorders, so my question is: where on that bell curve are the instruments that everyone is making copies of? Is it close to #1 or #30?

Then my next observation was that for each improvement, there was something lost. To get higher notes, volume was sacrificed. Also, when change did come, it was extreme. Not quite like from renaissance recorders to baroque recorders overnight, but quite radical for that time period. Instrument makers today are using every technique available to produce better and better instruments. Your article on the Korg tuners said this best.

I now find myself wondering why the majority of recorder makers are content to use antiquated means and produce copies rather than trying to develop and improve the instrument. I can recall reading articles about horn players when valves were introduced [in the mid-nineteenth century]. There were strong emotions on both sides of the debate, however; reason won in the end. So, rather than sit and debate what was old pitch, high or low, and what was the right copy of this, that, or the other: is there anyone out there really trying to rethink the recorder; or will the instrument stay much like an exercise bicycle – going, going, but never gone? Those ancient craftsmen were trying to make the best instruments possible using every technology available. Are the craftsmen today doing the same?”

Donald Beyer
Lindenhurst, NY

Dear Donald:

You raise a variety of interesting and interrelated points, all of which deserve some expansion and explanation. First, one has to consider the priorities of any instrument maker, ancient or modern. Their number one concern, I strongly suspect, was to make a decent living for themselves and their families by producing instruments that professional and amateur instrumentalists would want to buy and play. The players’ priorities were to obtain instruments that would enable them to play the music of their time with a tone quality, range, response, and expressiveness appropriate to the style of the period.

Instrument makers, then as now, were largely craftsmen and not performers of an advanced caliber; they relied on input from their customers as to what was needed. The best of them, like the Denners of the eighteenth century or the Fehrs of today, were brilliant, creative designers who could translate the demands of the music and players of their time into dramatically redesigned instruments; the less-gifted of them, then as now, simply copied the work, with varying degrees of skill, of their more talented colleagues.

Historical instruments are highly literature-specific; that is, they are very well suited to the music of the time period when they were made, but not to music from earlier or (in retrospect) later style periods. Renaissance recorders are great for playing renaissance music, but largely'unsuited for playing medieval or late baroque music. For historical makers, this limited applicability was not a problem, since in previous centuries, players were interested in performing and audiences were interested in hearing only contemporary music, i.e., the music of their own day. Interest in performing music of earlier periods was virtually non-existent, and the concomitant interest in having older styles of instruments designed to play an older repertory was therefore also largely non-existent. The occasional exception was in the realm of church music, where older repertory (like older liturgical practices in general) was sometimes deemed appropriate and recycled alongside newer music. (A good example of this practice is the 18th century English composer William Boyce's edition of Elizabethan and Jacobean sacred music in his publication Cathedral Music.) One of the reasons that we have so few historical instruments and so little earlier music is that out-of-date hardware and software, then as now, were considered disposable commodities and tossed out rather than archived. Your observation that Denner never made reproduction renaissance recorders is undoubtedly correct.

Our current interest in (and in some quarters obsession with) playing and hearing music of previous centuries (and, perversely, not of our own time) is a relatively modern notion that stems largely from nineteenth century antiquarianism. The earliest makers of historical instruments in the twentieth century, such as the Dolmetsch family in Haslemere, England, or Peter Harlan in Germany, thought it necessary to “improve” and redesign surviving historical instruments and used their heavily modernized creations rather indiscriminately for all periods of earlier music. We at ASW refer to this mindset as the Joe Namath Pantyhose Syndrome –“one size fits all.” It was only a good half century later that instrument makers began to see some merit in making authentic copies of surviving historical models and accepting them on their own terms, including their inherent literature-specificity.

A parallel myth, one that stems from the eighteenth century enlightenment philosophers and the industrial revolution, is the notion of continual progress: renaissance recorders are better than medieval recorders, baroque recorders are superior to renaissance recorders, and modern recorders, being the end result of eight centuries of instrument making expertise, are the best of all. This, of course, is patent nonsense. If there is one thing we have learned from the early instrument revival movement in the past century, it is that instruments have not gotten better; just become different. As you have noted, there is always a trade-off when an instrument is “improved:” the addition of valves to a horn increased the number of available pitchs and eliminated the varying tone qualities produced by hand-stopping, but it also caused a deterioration in the tone quality and expressive capability of the natural instrument. As succeeding generations of players have become more expert at playing on reproduction of early instruments and instrument makers have become more expert at producing accurate copies of those instruments without modernizing them, we have learned that the music of any one style period is best performed by the instruments made by the best makers of that period and that instruments of earlier or later periods are far less suited (and in many cases totally unsuitable) for that task.

One observation from my experience in examining surviving historical instruments in museum and private collections is that, when we do have a number of instruments extant from any one maker, they show a great deal of design variation. For example, the Denner recorder in the Copenhagen collection, which is the one copied by von Huene and by Yamaha, is a very large instrument, both physically and tonally. The Denner alto in the Basel Municipal museum (copied by Andreas Küng) is smaller in overall size and substantially quieter and very mellow in tone. The Denner in the Nuremberg collection (which has been copied by Mollenhauer) is very slender and graceful, and its tone is small but very complex and sensuous.

Whether the Denners made a variety of models for different clients or whether they, too, were seeking to continually improve their designs is not quite clear. The fact that so many substantially different models exist from the workshop of one family would seem to indicate that some sort of evolutionary process was taking place. It is a pity that we are not usually able to date woodwind instruments with the same certainty possible with keyboard and string instruments. We know a lot more about the evolution of Stradivarius’s violin designs that we do about the Denners’ recorders because the former’s labels almost always allow us to date the instrument.

As regards your criticism of present-day makers for not having made any efforts to improve the recorder, it is certainly true that many current makers are content to simply replicate historical recorders, although many of those makers of necessity make minor modifications to correct tuning and response problems in the original instruments. It is admittedly a great deal easier to simply copy an extant historical model than to design a good instrument from scratch. This is undoubtedly why there are many more baroque recorder copies at low pitch available, and why so few makers have been successful at producing a modern pitch baroque recorder which retains the tonal properties of the original low-pitch instrument.

Some more adventurous contemporary makers have attempted to modernize the recorder by extending its tonal and dynamic range. The now-defunct firm of Arnold Dolmetsch, Ltd., for example, developed a recorder with a key mechanism to close the hole at the end of the instrument; this so-called bell key extended the useful range of the instrument by about an octave and made it far better suited to performing contemporary music. Another Dolmetsch invention was the echo key, operated by the chin, which allowed the musician to play very softly without going flat in pitch. Although these attempts to modernize the recorder have had a few avid proponents during the past half century, they never won general acceptance among very many players. Apparently most recorder players are willing to accept the limitations of the historical instrument.

I suspect that your observation about the bell curve and the quality variation in instruments from the workshops of even the best historical makers is right on the money. About twenty years ago, I had a Denner copy recorder (appropriately enough) on order with a well-known maker. After waiting over a year; I received a phone call from this maker informing me that he had just finished a batch of twenty of these Denner alto recorders and inviting me to come over and select my long-awaited instrument from the entire lot. My joy at being allowed the pick of the litter, as we say in the world of dog breeding, was somewhat tempered by reality as I spent several hours trying all twenty Denner altos and sorting them out.

I found that three of the instruments were absolutely superb in tone and response (they needed some retuning and tonehole undercutting, but I was able to do that myself), four of the instruments were very disappointing and in my opinion totally unacceptable, and the other thirteen instruments were mediocre and varied, playable but deficient in one or more respects. While I was thrilled at having a fine new instrument, I left the workshop very much troubled about the poor instruments and wondering who would get stuck with them. A friend of mine who was invited over a few days later to select his instrument from the remaining ones had the identical impression about the quality variation. We were lucky to get first choice of the good ones.

I would hazard a guess that, had I been able to visit the original Denner workshop to select an instrument, I would have had a similar experience. The reality of the situation is that custom-made instruments can vary a good deal in quality, and instrument makers have to sell all of their instruments, the good and the not-so-good, if they are to make a living. Mind you, I do not believe for a minute that makers, historical or modern, deliberately dump lousy instruments on unsuspecting customers. They, after all, have a vested interest in keeping their customers as happy as possible and maintaining their reputation. The fact of the matter; however. is that most instrument makers of my acquaintance simply do not play the instrument well enough to be able to make the fine distinctions as to voicing, tuning, or overall quality that matter greatly to a skilled player. Instruments that I find to be substantially different in sound or feel are to them virtually identical.

Not to put too fine a point on the matter, I spend many hours each day providing custom tuning and voicing services for instruments which can be extremely variable as delivered by the original maker. In the words of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, I try to make “the crooked straight and the rough places plain,” to improve all instruments to a optimum standard of performance that is considerably higher than the average level achieved by the maker: I spend my workdays flattening out bell curves – and the more than three thousand customers to whom we have delivered instruments in the past eighteen years would seem to agree that such post-production refinement is a valuable if not absolutely essential service.

Copyright, Antique Sound Workshop, Ltd., 1991. All rights reserved.

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