The ignored and obliterated legacy of a recorder legend: Carl Dolmetsch maker and performer.

No wonder the recorder is often considered not a serious instrument, when its own advocates, we recorder players today, fail to fully recognise crucial aspects of the playing style and instruments used by the greatest recorder advocate of all: Carl Dolmetsch.

As we know, Carl Dolmetsch (1911 - 1997) was perhaps the most influential player in the revival of the recorder in the 20th century. As widely documented by the Society of Recorder Players in the UK, Carl Dolmetsch, between 1939 and 1989 extensively toured internationally and offered a famous series of recorder recitals at the Wigmore Hall in London UK, in which at least one new work for recorder by many-a-distinguished-composers-of-the-time was premiered in every concert, which undoubtedly placed Carl Dolmetsch, together with Frans Brüggen, as the most successful recorder concert artists in modern history.


As recorder makers, Arnold (1858 - 1940) and Carl Dolmetsch made crucial changes to the 17th century design of the recorder in order to position it as a modern instrument, a position which the recorder held as a mainstream instrument in the leading music conservatoires worldwide, for many years during the second half of the 20th century .

In the 21st century, however, the recorder has lost its place as a mainstream instruments in the leading conservatoires worldwide.  Instead, these leading conservatoires in the UK and worldwide, today include the recorder only on the list of instruments for 'historical performance', whereas in the past it had been on the same list as all the mainstream orchestral instruments and other well respected instruments such as the classical guitar. 

Carl Dolmetsch's performance heritage, the design of the recorders he played and the way he played them, has not been fully valued. Instead, the recorder has been a victim of commercial greed by the music industry and recorder makers selling 'authentic 16th and 17th century design' recorders, almost totally disappearing from the market the original design by Carl Dolmetsch, which, for technical reasons, is in many ways harder to play, but at the same time better suited to play the vast array and styles of music available today, other than early music. Disruptive changes in the design of instruments have always happened, but history sooner or later rectifies, as will hopefully be the case in the future development of the recorder.

The changes made by Arnold and Carl Dolmetsch to the design of the recorder, can be compared to those changes made by other instrument makers to the baroque violin (and baroque violin bow) to transition it to the modern violin (bigger and heavier bow, metal strings, longer neck, etc.), or to the baroque flute to transition it to the modern flute (larger embouchure hole, keywork, cylindrical bore, etc), changes which also implied the development of their playing technique.

The Dolmetsch's design innovations and the features of Carl Dolmetsch's playing technique, are olympically ignored today by the vast majority of recorder players and makers, who mostly play on authentic 16th and 17th century design recorders, while some players also favor 'avant-garde' recorder designs such as the 'eagle recorder'.

SInce 2017, when I accidentally laid my hands on a Dolmetsch style recorder, the 'Dolonite' model made of bakelite, I play only on Carl Dolmetsch style instruments*, whose most noticeable design difference, which requires a different blowing technique, is the larger rectangular or 'letter box' shape of their windway, as opposed to the narrower curved shape of the windway in 16th and 17th century recorders.

The former was designed to be played with a constant diaphragm or throat vibrato, like Carl Dolmetsch played, while the latter was presumably, according to 'Historically Informed Performance' practice, designed to be played without vibrato, unless such vibrato is used as a transient embellishment.

In future posts I shall discuss further aspects of the ignored and obliterated legacy of Carl Dolmetsch recorder player, recorder maker, genius thinker and visionary educator.


Miguel Lawrence.


*Carl Dolmetsch style recorders should not be confused with recorders made by J & M Dolmetsch, which are not the same design.