Classic Mornings

Blowing, Bowing & Keeping The Handle Going


If I had seen the photo anywhere else, I wouldn’t have noticed. In black and white and taken outdoors on a warm day, there are two boys standing next to each other playing toy instruments: a saxophone and a trumpet.

There are lots of photographs of young children with toy instruments. I’m sure that some kids got tired of them or distracted by the prospect of playing with something else. Nevertheless, pictures like that are memorable, even if the children were just playing around with those instruments.

The one I saw was particularly memorable. Playing the toy saxophone was the young Branford Marsalis. And playing the toy trumpet was the young Wynton Marsalis. It was included in a photo gallery celebrating Wynton Marsalis’s life. Who would have known back then that they would go on to be legendary players of those instruments? I’m guessing that their parents knew. Ellis Marsalis was a pianist and music educator. Dolores Marsalis came from a musical family and had a “beautiful singing voice,” according to Ellis.

I seemed to know the name of a flutist on a recent recording. But it took a while before I remembered where I had come upon it. He’s one of the soloists on that Vivaldi recording with the ensemble L’Astrée, which I often select for Classic Mornings. In fact, I had just played the concerto known as “Il gardellino” (the goldfinch) featuring Ubaldo Rosso. 

This time, he’s joined by violist Carlo De Martini and guitarist Francesco Braghi. They call themselves Classico Terzetto Italiano. Performing together since 2005, they introduce us to music by the Beethoven contemporary: Joseph Küffner (1776-1856). I have to admit I had not heard of the composer.

Küffner was born in Würzburg, which is in southern Germany today. It’s said that he trained to be a lawyer but learned to play the violin and guitar. He wrote seven symphonies and became a bandmaster.  He also wrote music which featured the guitar, including the serenades for guitar, flute, and viola on the recent recording (Brilliant Classics 96319).

Another flutist I had heard, but only as part of an ensemble called Arion, was Claire Guimond. I sometimes play selections from their recording of so-called “Comic Concertos” by the 18th century French composer Michel Corrette. A 2017 recording by the Montreal-based chamber orchestra, which I’ve just discovered, features concertos by Georg Philipp Telemann and Johann Joachim Quantz ( 7779). Guimond, former artistic director of Arion, is the soloist in the flute concertos on the recording, and is joined by Alexa Raine-Wright in a concerto for 2 flutes by Quantz 

I have to admit, I don’t know of a lot of hurdy gurdy players. Last week, I introduced a recording featuring an early music hurdy gurdy player from Canada: Tobie Miller. Several years ago, she and Ensemble Danguy released a collection of music for the vielle (hurdy gurdy) from 18th century France (Ricercar 382).

She provides a fascinating history of the vielle in the notes. It’s 1,000 years old and formerly took two to play when it was used for church music and vocal instruction. Portable instruments were developed to allow singers to accompany themselves. She explains that around the 14th and 15th centuries, drone instruments fell out of favor at churches and royal courts with the rise of music of many interweaving voices.  

For some 300 years, hurdy gurdys were associated with beggars and peasants until a revival by French aristocrats in the 18th century. This brought about refinements of the instruments - actual art vielles. Why did they become popular? So that aristocrats could idealize and imitate the perceived simplicity of rural life in their music, according to Miller.

The hurdy gurdy resembles a violin. But the strings are played with a rosined wheel, which serves as a circular bow and which is turned by a crank, resulting in a continuous bowing. The notes are selected with buttons, and there are ways of creating effects in the actual cranking or by use of the bridge of the instrument.

A number of composer/virtuosi emerged in 18th century France as well as hundreds of compositions for the hurdy gurdy. The recording features music for solo vielle as well as in combination with other instruments. I was excited to play selections from a sonata for vielle and violin by a composer/vielle player known simply as Ravet. With just the two instruments, you can clearly hear the difference between bowed and wheel-bowed strings.

If all of this inspires you to explore the vielle, don’t even hesitate! In the meantime, know that it continues to be as simple as turning on a radio switch and turning a dial or pressing a button to join us for Classic Mornings. Tune in Monday through Friday from 9 am-noon on WILL-FM 90.9 or online at