A Confusion of Names

The end blown flute known as the recorder appeared extensively in the art, literature and music of the Baroque through 1750. It was a symbol of pastoralism and the simple, obedient Christian life. Gentlemen were expected to play the recorder, as women were once expected to play the piano. To appear virtuous and contented, people even dressed up as shepherds and had their portraits painted.

The recorder was thought to have disappeared after 1800, replaced by the more versatile transverse flute.

Oxford Music Online has no discussion of the recorder in the 19th century, and contemporary scholars such as Jeremy Montagu and Anthony Rowland-Jones say it was "totally forgotten" or it "hibernated".

This article will demonstrate that the recorder in fact flourished, and its symbolism continued to evolve throughout the century. Three characteristic Baroque works of art, literature and music are used as reference points; Teniers' painting The Contented Shepherd, Moraine's poem of the same name, and Vivaldi's first Faithful Shepherd sonata.

Various 19th century works of art are examined in relation to seven topics associated with the recorder; religion, innocence, independence, control, status, women, and confusion in description and naming of the instrument itself.

By 1735 the term "recorder" was obsolete, and the instrument was simply called the "flute" or "common English flute." In 1776, Sir John Hawkins gave a reason for the recorder's previously high status.

Hawkins attempts to clarify the meaning of the term "recorder" but shows that the understanding was already confused.

This chapter title from Tans'urs Elements of Musick shows that the recorder and the flageolet were understood to be the same.

In fact in 1898 Christopher Welch lamented in his Six Lectures on the Recorder that all end-blown flutes were then called flageolets. This is significant because of course you will find nothing about the recorder in the 19th century if everyone is calling it a flageolet.

In French le flageolet is both a bean and a flute. These flageolets appear to be playing flageolets.

The Sound of Innocence

An oscilloscope analysis of flageolets, or recorders, shows that they produce sine waves with very few overtones. Their sound is often used to evoke innocence and simplicity. Shepherds, angels and small boys play them. Apparently the plain waveform and few overtones translate in the brain to those qualities.

On the other hand the devil plays the violin.

Rocks and Red Shepherds

The Contented Shepherd by Teniers is characteristic of Baroque recorder iconography.

In the picture, a solitary shepherd plays the recorder to control the animals and amuse himself. Here and in many other images, he wears red, the symbol of blood, strength and martyred Christian saints. A shepherd's status is literally and figuratively always as an outsider. The picture recalls lines from the 23rd Psalm.

This is an engraving by Le Bas of Teniers' painting. On the hill is a church, or a castle, the Lord's house. The shepherd's rod intersects the feather in his cap to form a cross. The Christian symbolism of the number three appears everywhere. A right triangle is formed by the shepherd's head, the cow's head and the church. There are six innocent sheep, two times three. The dark rocks to the right form a triangle pointing to the church. However, lurking behind the sheep is not a ram, but a he-goat, a classical Greek symbol of revelry. Teniers' picture is a Christian allegory of salvation through obedience to divine authority.

The French poem by Moraine below the engraving calls the instrument a flageolet.

This is a similar sentiment to Psalm 23. The innocent shepherd depends only on himself and his music for happiness. His wants are simple. All he needs is his shepherdess, but she isn't anywhere in the picture.

In 1737 Vivaldi composed a set of six sonatas called The Faithful Shepherd (also attributed to Chédeville). The first movement of the first sonata is a characteristic piece of Baroque music for recorder in a slow three with a simple two chord harmony. You can hear sheep bleating in the recorder trills and imagine the musical imitations are echoes from the surrounding rocks.

The Recorder in the Orchestra

The last verified 18th century orchestral piece scored for recorder was Gluck's Echo and Narcissus, which used two flûtes a bec.

However, this wasn't the end of the recorder in the orchestra. In 1801 Weber included two alto recorders in his early opera Peter Schmoll. Weber used the Italian term Flauti dolci, sweet flutes.

In 1819, James Hook included the flageolet in his orchestral song Peace and Pleasure, and in 1824 Johann Strauss used it in a country dance. Orchestral compositions continued to appear throughout the 19th century, including works by at least ten other minor composers.

Decline in Status

Social roles change. As women are no longer required to play the piano, men no longer played the recorder. The status of the instrument fell. This is clearly seen in 19th century art and literature.

In this print, the man with the cravat and big hair is adjusting the woman's fingers on the recorder as she sits at a keyboard. The music master leans against his stand in exasperation. This picture seems wildly different from the Contented Shepherd, but just as there was a sinister black he-goat in that picture, there is a snake in this paradise. The man in front with the sun glasses is holding a serpent, an ancestor of the tuba.

Unlike the Contented Shepherd, this is not an innocent scene of religious harmony, but one of profane discord. Instead of sheep there is a yapping dog on the far left. The shepherd is out of control of his flock and the young man is clearly intent on leading the woman astray. No one is thinking about the music.

The three figures to the left form a triangle which focuses attention on the woman holding the recorder. John Essex has these comments.

By playing the recorder, the woman is doing something socially unacceptable and she shows the appropriate reluctance.

We've seen that as the status of the recorder declined in England, its name changed until it was synonymous with the flageolet. A name change occurred in the vicinity of Austria at the same time but with a rise in status instead.

The Csakan Period, 1800-1850

In 1816, at the last known concert of the virtuoso flutist Anton Heberle, in Veszprém, Hungary, the following program notes appeared.

A Google image search for csákány finds this:

What Heberle claimed to have invented was a beautiful, ax-like walking stick and musical instrument called the csakan. Heberle may have invented it, but a shepherd would never be without a staff of some kind for support, for herding, protection and even entertainment.

Coincidentally, a modern musician often refers to his instrument as an axe.

The csakan eventually lost its inconvenient walking stick form and additional holes and keys were added to improve its range and facility, until it became a keyed recorder.

In fact the title page of Heberle's Sonate Brillante says it's for csakan or flute douce, another name for the recorder. The music is published and played as a solo piece, but there is no indication of this in the score. It seems to require an accompaniment in some places, and one has been added for the following performance.

This is freer and more complex music than Vivaldi. It's a fantasy in four beats filled with exuberant runs. This is not simple harmony for evoking barnyard animals and reassuring pious people. Instead, it implies at least four chords, and it's full of trills, but they no longer represent the innocent bleating of sheep. This shepherd has claimed his independence, abandoned the flock and gone off to the opera.

In Gillray's A Little Music, the recorder is again degraded.

The central figure of the picture is a self important military man playing the transverse flute, while the recorder is relegated to the corner and the puffing of a small boy. Here there is no apparent religious significance and probably no harmony. A panting dog looks up to the flutist for approval, while a demented cat, not a contented sheep, either prepares to shred the music with its claws, or use it for cat litter.

The original version of the Pied Piper in Grimm's German Legends from 1816, The Children of Hamelin, mentions only a Pfeifchen, a small whistle or pipe. Every artist and writer in the 19th century has ignored this description.

When the rats are gone and the city fathers refuse to pay, the children flock like sheep after the Pied Piper to some kind of paradise. They're rewarded for their obedience and the adults are punished. The Piper is now the shepherd and symbolic Lord.

At the beginning of the 19th century the recorder was forbidden for women. Twenty years later a young woman is finally allowed to play it in Irving's Crayon Papers.

This is not a serious description of the woman, and the flageolet was not a serious instrument, used then mostly in dance orchestras. Here the woman has become the pied piper and controls the narrator, who stuffily disapproves.

As the recorder declined in England, the popularity of the csakan in Austria rose. The Paganini of the csakan, Ernst Krähmer again calls it a flûte douce on page two of his Csakan School.

At this time Field and Chopin were active, and their styles affected other composers, including Krähmer. His works were often virtuoso pieces like Heberle's, but more refined. His Ninth Divertimento is like a nocturne in its languid dreaminess and chromaticism.

In one of Goethe's last works, Novella, an escaped lion hides in a cave. A gypsy boy tames it by playing "a soft, sweet flute." Goethe never actually names the instrument, presumably because the usual terms referring to it were now obscure, but it's clearly the flûte douce.

Navez's Young Shepherd appears to have included some Krähmer in his repertoire, judging by the dreamy look on the women's faces.

He seems to have copied from The Contented Shepherd.

If Teniers' painting is flipped horizontally, then Navez has replaced the animals with women, and the standing woman has taken the cow's position. Both shepherds wear red, the mountain on the right leads to some unknown paradise, and it's impossible not to see a draped cross in the tree at the left.

Although the years 1800-1850 were dominated by the csakan, the term hardly occurs in literature. However, there is a description in Dickens' Sketches by Boz that could be a csakan.

Dickens may have attended a performance such as this one.

Dickens clearly knew the difference between a csakan and a handsaw. In the Old Curiosity Shop, he honors the flageolet, too.

In Browning's Pied Piper of Hamelin, the Piper wears fool's motley to show he is an outsider, and Browning also associates him with death.

While Revelations tells us seven trumpets will call us to the Last Judgment, it seems appropriate that children should be called by a little whistle.

Browning writes, "Three shrill notes the pipe uttered," but then contradicts this description.

Browning's Pied Piper was written almost at the midpoint of the century and many figures important to the csakan died around that time, including Krähmer, the publisher Diabelli, and the waltz composers Lanner, Fahrbach, and Strauss. With so many of the major figures involved with the instrument gone, the popularity of the csakan passed away too.

In Monterey and other Poems the blind poet Frances Jane Crosby expressed an appropriate sentiment:

The French Flageolet Period, 1850-1890

Rather than being laid aside, the French flageolet now rose to prominence. This version of the end blown flute had four holes in the front and two in the back.

One of these may have been the instrument Berlioz found at the age of twelve.

It's not surprising that a composer of bombastic works like Berlioz was unimpressed by the instrument.

Berlioz was unaware that Beethoven took a csakan on his walks in the country, that Beethoven had contemplated writing a sonata for the instrument and had allowed his music to be arranged for csakan.

Berlioz apparently had a different concept of elevated style and must have been unfamiliar with Bach and Handel's transcendent use of the recorder.

Berlioz was the author of the most important treatise on orchestration in the 19th century. What composer would consider writing for flageolet after such scathing descriptions? Yet its status as an outcast now freed it for new associations.

The Recorder and Independence

In Boy Playing a Flute, Luigi Bechi doesn't specifically identify the instrument and has discarded its usual accompanying symbols. Innocence is implied by the short pants and bare feet. However, the use of red suggests another interpretation.

Bechi was an Italian patriot who fought in 1859 with the Piedmontese army against the Austrians. Around 1840 the Italian revolutionary Garibaldi adopted his trademark red shirt, poncho, and hat. Since the flageolet was also a military instrument, apparently Bechi's painting is an allegory of Italian independence.

In Richard Dadd's Negation a boy is holding a flageolet.

The women on the right wear plain and patterned skirts while the mother and child wear fustanella, a traditional skirt worn by Balkan men and boys.

Fustanella was a symbol of Greek independence. Each of its four hundred pleats represents a year of Turkish domination. After a trip to Greece, Turkey and the Middle East in 1843, Richard Dadd, also known as "Mad Dadd", murdered his father and spent the rest of his life in mental hospitals, so he may well have been thinking of independence.

A comparison with The Contented Shepherd shows that the mother is now the shepherd and leads the boy away. The two women occupy the place of the cow again, and their heads point not to a church, but a shack.

The French revolution ended in 1799, and the Greeks gained independence in 1829. The German revolution failed in 1848 at the same time as the Italian wars of independence began. The American Civil War ended in 1865.

Always associated with symbols of power like the Church, the rod and the staff, it's not surprising that the recorder became connected with the idea of independence.

Narcisse Bousquet was a French band-leader, publisher, composer of military and dance music, and a virtuoso flageolet player. His Sixth Grand Caprice is reminiscent of Chopin's Military Polonaise, with contrasting lyrical waltz-like sections.

The Recorder, Women and Power

In 19th century literature we've encountered women playing the flageolet several times. So far none have been painted with the instrument.

Giuseppe Fagnani's Euterpe holds two recorders in her left hand, significantly, and a lyre in her right. The model is New York socialite Minnie Parker.

In Greek mythology Euterpe was said to have invented the aulos, which was not a recorder, but usually a reed instrument like an oboe with two bodies.

The dominant version of the recorder in the first half of the 19th century was the ax-shaped csakan. As Euterpe holds the recorders (a couple of wooden rods) raised in the air, the pose and dress recall the Roman symbol of power, the fasces, a bundle of rods bound by red bands from which an axe head projected.

The fasces were carried by the lictors, Roman police who also inflicted punishment. The rods were used for scourging and the axe for beheading. Fagnani may have seen the recorders as more representative of power than the aulos.

If Euterpe's lyre symbolizes Apollonian moderation and equilibrium, then the recorders are Dionysian pipes, symbols of ecstasy and celebration. Minnie Parker hardly looks Dionysian, but as a New York socialite, she probably had power. Nor does she appear ecstatic, though on May 15, 1869 in New York she may have celebrated the founding of the National Woman's Suffrage Association by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

This is imaginary of course, but Fagnani was in Europe from 1858 to 1865 and made portraits of Garibaldi, King Victor Emanuel and many other powerful and important figures of the time.

In Greek mythology the Sirens were women of power. Part bird, they lured sailors to their deaths by singing, and in Böcklin's Sirens, by playing the recorder.

In Rooke's Dancing Girls the recorder player on the lower left is also a woman. Instead of sailors, she controls all the motion in the picture with her music. She wears dark red, like the lilies in the foreground, and occupies one point on a large circle formed by all the other figures. Even the stream leads to her. She has the familiar position of the shepherd in The Contented Shepherd and harmony reigns here, too. On top of the cupola of the building in back, there is a weather vane or a cross. Unlike The Contented Shepherd, there are no threatening he-goats in the picture or any males at all.

Kate Greenaway seems to have drawn her instrument from William Blake's Songs of Innocence.

This conical flute is clearly not Browning's "smooth straight cane", nor Grimm's "little pipe", but the Piper still leads flocks of animals and children to their end, like this Renaissance Dance of Death woodcut on the left and the 19th century version on the right.

In addition, Greenaway has subtly changed the poem's interpretation. The children certainly have been taken to paradise, but it's a place just for girls and possibly one red-haired boy to the right of the tree.

Greenaway's paradise recalls Rooke's Dancing Girls.

The pipers are both in the same position and both wear red. Greenaway's piper sits beside red tulips instead of lilies. To the right there are circles of dancing girls. Greenaway's stream is in back, Rooke's in front. A girl leaning on her elbow holds a bluebird at the same location as the girl leaning on her chin. All dance to a piper and all are female.

Berthe Morisot's own daughter, Julie Manet, appears in The Flageolet.

Within a swirling, chaotic background, the two girls maintain a strict discipline. Morisot's paintings appeared regularly at impressionist exhibitions, and this was an achievement in itself at the time and prophetic of things to come.

Around the year 1890 an early music revival began in Europe. 19th century prejudices against old music were being overcome. Performances of Baroque music occurred more frequently, and old music for the recorder was published again.

Robert Louis Stevenson was an enthusiastic flageolet player. His arrangements and compositions include more than 120 titles, several of which are neo-Baroque in style. He describes his playing this way:

He may have characterized himself in this description of the valet Rowley in his unfinished novel St. Ives.

Nights of Vailima is the only completely original composition by Stevenson ever published. It first appears in the preface to the 1905 biographical edition of St. Ives. Vailima ("five waters") was Stevenson's last home in Samoa. His wife Fanny said that he intended to depict bird sounds at night, but no particular Samoan bird can be identified in the music, although there are similarities to several. Stevenson imagined that some of the birds were "mimicking my name", and in the first few bars of his music it is easy to hear them singing, “Rahh-bert Lou-is, Rahh-bert Ste-ven-son, Rahh-bert Lou-is ...” The accompaniment in this recording is not by Stevenson.

In an article about Stevenson in the Glasgow Herald of April 21st, 1900, J. Cuthbert Hadden wrote, "Stevenson … never could remember the name of an air, no matter how familiar it was to him". Stevenson's neo-Baroque composition Gigue is in fact not a gigue at all but a gavotte. This accompaniment in this performance is arranged from music of Bach and is not by Stevenson.

Besides the flageolet, Stevenson played piano and was familiar with Bach's music. He may have played through the 5th French Suite, which contains both a gavotte and a gigue, and later confused the two in memory. In this part of Stevenson's manuscript you can just make out the title and the initials R.L.S. at the top.

Stevenson's piece is also similar in rhythm to the gavotte in Vivaldi's first sonata from The Faithful Shepherd. Note the double rhythms. Gigues are usually in triplets.


During the Baroque it was as much a social necessity for men to play the recorder as playing the piano used to be for women, but as the popularity of the transverse flute increased, the recorder declined.

By disguising itself as the csakan, the instrument was rescued from a fall in status and a few virtuosos and publishers made it very popular in the first half of the century. Its success continued after 1850 in the form of the French flageolet, bringing it to the highest levels of virtuosity.

In the Baroque the recorder was associated with religious themes, innocence and control. None of these associations disappeared in the 19th century. There was no lack of shepherds or small boys playing the recorder in some version of paradise, but its symbolism continued to develop, including new associations with women, comedy and capriciousness.

If the 19th century is characterized as a period of titanic struggle between composers and their compositions, virtuosos and their instruments, and people against their stereotypes and governments, it seems paradoxical that this mild mannered flute appeared regularly and significantly in 19th century art, literature and music. Yet its continual pairing with symbols of strength and control allowed it to become associated both with the emerging power of women and the independence of nations.

Bibliographical Note

Whenever possible, quotations in this work were scanned from original sources. Most other texts were obtained from the Internet Archive, Gutenberg, Google Books, or the Hector Berlioz websites. The quotation by John Essex appears in the Google books facsimile of Music and Society by Richard Leppert and Susan McClary.

Nicholas S. Lander's Recorder Home Page, Jacob Head's Pleasant Companion and Le flageolet français were useful websites.

Most portraits were obtained from Wikipedia. Many images were from Google or freely available on the web, while others were from the Bnf banque d'images and American Memory sites. Rooke's Dancing Girls appears on the website of the Ashmolean Museum.

Other sources included:

Alderidge, Patricia. Richard Dadd. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1974.

Betz, Marianne. Der Csakan und seine Musik. Tutzing : H. Schneider, 1992.

Coekelberghs, Denis, Alain Jacobs, and Pierre Loze. François-Joseph Navez. Ghent: Snoeck-Ducaju & Zoon, 1999.

Delafond, Marianne. Berthe Morisot. Paris: Musée Marmottan, 2005.

Leppert, Richard D. Music and image. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.


This article is an adaptation of a presentation by the same name given at the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities at Northwestern University May 19, 2010 and at the Northwestern University Main Library, May 20, 2010. This work would have been impossible without the support of both institutions.

Thanks to Yale University Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library for copies of many of Robert Louis Stevenson's scores.