Piece of the week 61: North Sea Sketches (recorder orchestra)

Like many of us, I started to play the descant recorder when in primary school – and my first compositions, as an eight-year-old, were for the recorder. But then I got interested in other instruments and, although I continued to write for the recorder, I hardly ever played it until my interest was rekindled when I was given a bass recorder on my retirement from full-time teaching.  This opened for me some exciting possibilities and the opportunity to play recorder ensemble music for the first time.

I joined the Suffolk branch of the Society of Recorder Players (SRP): this organisation has nearly fifty branches all over the country and they usually meet monthly, aimed at amateur recorder players who just want to play for fun. So I went along and hid in the back row amongst the bass recorders, and discovered a whole new world of music-making!

The instrument that many young school-children begin on is the descant (or soprano) recorder. But there are only a few of these in a recorder orchestra as their high-pitched sound carries a long way. As the instruments get larger, we find the treble recorders (a fifth lower than the descants, and the traditional solo recorder for much baroque and contemporary music), the tenor recorder (an octave below the descant) and the bass (an octave below the treble, so actually not that low). You need a lot of players on the lower parts to balance the sound at the top. Then some orchestras have the even larger contrabass and great bass recorders, and, a fourth above the descant, the tiny sopranino. So overall there is a good range of pitch and instrumental colour, and it’s a fascinating ensemble to play in.

The repertoire of groups like the Suffolk SRP consists mainly of Renaissance and Baroque music (there is much ensemble music available, and also much choral music arranged for recorders), and of modern music in an accessible style, including many arrangements of jazz classics, pop songs of the more tuneful type, and traditional folk-songs, and there are a number of expert arrangers working in these fields, from whom I learnt a great deal about writing for these ensembles.

And every year, the 40-50 SRP groups get together for a weekend of music-making, and this SRP Festival is hosted by a different branch each year – and it was Suffolk SRP’s turn in 2010. I was lucky enough to be commissioned to write a piece to kick off the festival, to be played by all the participants – and this took place in the Suffolk port of Felixstowe, one of the largest North Sea ports, with a long naval history.   North Sea Sketches celebrates this link, and it is an arrangement of a selection of traditional songs and dances related to the sea. The first performance, then, took place one morning in a cavernous school hall in Felixstowe, with around 200 players, directed by Moira Usher.

The first movement, ‘In Harbour’, consists of three country dances: The Boatman, Chelsea Reach, andSteamboat Quickstep.  The second movement, ‘Lament’ is based on the folk-song All things are quite silent, in which a young woman sings sorrowfully of her husband who has been press-ganged into the Navy to fight in the Napoleonic Wars, leaving her with their young child.   The last movement, ‘Ocean Waves’ begins with two folk-songs, Bold Nelson’s Praise and the Bay of Biscay. There is a change of mood for Farewell and adieu to you, Spanish Ladies as the sailors take their leave, finally singing one of the most well-known of all sea-songs as they make their journey home.

The piece is scored for Descant, Trebles 1 and 2, Tenor, and Bass, with optional Sopranino, Great Bass, and Contra Bass.  It’s now been played by quite a few recorder orchestras and ensembles: here’s a link to a scrolling score with a performance played by the National Youth Recorder Orchestra (NYRO), conducted by the late Colin Touchin, and here are links to two of the movements played by the Hampshire Recorder Sinfonia, director Helen Hooker: Lament and Ocean Waves.

You can also hear the NYRO recording on Soundcloud here.

The music is published by Peacock Press.