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The recorder is an evolved form of flute, a woodwind from the family of fipple or internal duct flutes. Although many of the fingering principles are the same, it’s distinguished from the transverse flute by being end-blown. Although some forms of fippled flutes are older, the recorder as we know it may have originated in Italy in the 14th century. It soon became important as a consort instrument during the Renaissance. Like the viol, the recorder comes in a family of sizes—as many as eight, according to Michael Praetorius.

The recorder was popular from Medieval times through the Baroque, and declined in popularity in the 18th century in favor of orchestral woodwind instruments, such as the traverse flute, oboe, and clarinet. It was often associated with pastoral scenes, miraculous events, funerals, marriages, and amorous scenes. Images reflecting those sensibilities can be found in both literature and artwork.

The recorder was far more popular than its loud double-reeded cousin the shawm and its noisy cousin the bagpipe, and volume was probably a contributing factor. Sometimes players bound two recorders together, one to be played with the right hand and the other with the left. This seems an imitation of the ancient Greek aulos rather than an innovation, though.

The modern revival of interest in the instrument began at the turn of 20th century primarily due to resurgence of interest in early music (as defined by “music before 1750”). Arnold Dolmetsch in the UK and various scholars in Germany, including the Brussels Conservatory where Dolmetsch trained and the performance group Bogenhauser Künstlerkapelle, were largely responsible for this revival of interest, but even so, there were common misperceptions about it, including by such notables as Igor Stravinsky, who thought it was some sort of clarinet.

Recorder History

There are other end-blown flutes, such as panpipes, but the recorder is made distinctive by the contraption in the throat of it that controls the flow of air. This contraption is called a duct or a fipple, and its use is better described in the Structure portion of this article. It’s an ancient idea, and an Iron Age (1200-550 BCE) recorder made of sheep bone has been discovered.

Although common lore claims the recorder as a 14th century invention, Medieval paintings of whistles argue for an earlier inception. The difference between a whistle (like those used in Irish folk tunes), with six or fewer holes, is that a recorder has seven holes in the front and one in the back. The original design of the traverse flute, and the fingering that goes with it, was based on the six-holed whistle, not the recorder. Yup, I was surprised to learn this too.

A 14th century recorder was discovered in a castle moat in the Netherlands. It was largely intact, but no longer playable. They found another from the same period buried in a latrine (we can only wonder how THAT came to be) in Northern Germany. There are a few more from the same period elsewhere in Germany, and in Estonia and Poland. There’s a piece of a bone recorder from the 14th or 15th century that was dug up in Greece and a complete recorder from the 15th century was found in Poland.

The earliest recorders were designed to be played with the right hand below the left or vice versa, depending on the preferences of the player. The holes were all in a straight line, except the lowest hole, for the lower hand’s little finger. This was a double hole so that the player could fill the unused hole with clay, depending upon which hand they preferred to play with uppermost. This second hole is why the French called the instrument flute à neuf trous. Later, the right-hand lower style was declared standard and the second hole disappeared.

The recorder was very popular in the 16th and 17th century, probably because music was no longer strictly the purview of nobility and clergy. The invention of the printing press made music available to anyone with the money to pay for it. The recorder was also brought into royal courts, including that of Henry VIII. When he died in 1547, they found 76 recorders among his possessions.

During the Renaissance, recorders were used for dance music and as accompaniment for singers. Both William Shakespeare and John Milton also mention recorders. There are many vocal works with un-texted lines that were probably meant for instruments, such as vielles and recorders and lots of vocal music was easily playable (within the right range) by these instruments. Increasingly, composers wrote music solely for instruments, and they often didn’t specify which. This meant that a consort (a group containing a bunch of instruments from the same family, like various sizes of cornettos or recorders) could be played by whatever musicians and instruments were handy. This period of innovation and invention proved that if an instrument was good in one size, it would be even better in several sizes and with several ranges.

 

Instrument Biography: The Recorder

In the 15th century, recorders were increasingly used in polyphony along with voices, organs, shawms, trombones, trumpets, and cornetti. Polyphony was the style of the day during the Renaissance, but composers were just beginning to write chordal pieces. (For more on this, check out Chords versus Polyphony.) The Medieval tradition of juxtaposing two or three melodies on top of one another co-existed with imitation, where one part has the melody and then another does, each taking a turn. The late Renaissance also ushered in an interest in complex improvisation and ornamentation, something that was so very distinctive during the Baroque period.

There are many existing examples of recorders from the 16th century, all still playable. Like the Medieval recorders but unlike the later Baroque recorders, Renaissance recorders have a wide and nearly cylindrical bore (Baroque recorders tend to be conical). They have great low notes (better than the Baroque instruments, in fact) because of that wider bore. This bore shape meant that the player had to blow harder, but it also made the instrument more lithe and responsive.

The recorder’s relative, the flageolet, is thought to have been invented by someone called Juvigny in Paris at the close of the 16th century. It had unusual finger holes—four in the front and two in the back—and it had a particularly high-pitched sound.

In the 17th century, changes to the design of the recorder made it more suitable to the Baroque era, including improvements to the tone, which made it quieter and reduced its range. Praetorius mentions eight sizes of recorder in his 1618 treatise, but only three were still in use a century later: the descant, alto, and bass. Its gentle and subdued tone couldn’t keep up with the growing demand of the 18th century for dynamic and tonal contrasts, and it was slowly ousted by the traverse flute. In the 18th century, people called the recorder the flute because it was so wide-spread, and they called the traverse flute the traverse to distinguish it.

After the 18th century, there wasn’t much call for recorders. It’s possible that the versatility of the traverse flute made it more appealing to composers. Because of the fixed relationship of the wind-way to the fipple, the dynamics and expression of the recorder were limited, making it ill suited to the dramatic style of the period. Also, music as a pastime for aristocratic amateurs was changing to music for a society of professionals, and composers of the time began to write solely for professionals.

By the Romantic era, the recorder had been nearly completely replaced by the traverse flute and the clarinet. A keyed version of the recorder (called a czakan or Stockflöte) survived into 19th century concert halls. But still, its popularity waned. The recorder was basically ignored during the Romantic period. But in 1912, Arnold Dolmetsch, who was instrumental (ha ha) in reviving quite a few ancient instruments, made them popular again, especially in England and Germany. Now, recorders in various sizes, and mostly without keys, are made for the Early Music Movement, for music education in the schools, and for performances of folk music.

Fortunately for us, playing the recorder never completely died, and there are still makers all over Europe. There was a huge recorder revival in the 20th century as part of the historically informed performance (HIP) movement of early music, but also because it’s simple and ideally adapted to teaching music to amateurs. Lots of children played recorders as a “gateway” instrument, but there are many professional players who can show us the instrument’s full range.

The recorder is enjoyed by amateur groups large and small, which usually contain multiple sizes of instruments to compensate for limited note ranges in individual instruments. Four-part arrangements (soprano, alto, tenor, bass, just like vocal parts) are most common, although there are more complex arrangements (just like vocal parts). Recorder orchestras are a late-20th century invention, with 60 or more players, and up to nine sizes of the instrument. You can find such groups in Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, the US, Canada, the UK, and several other countries.

Recorder Structure

The recorder is a wind instrument with a beak mouthpiece, seven finger holes at the front, and a thumb hole at the back. It was well-known in the Middle Ages and had developed several sizes by the 14th century, when the name, meaning “keepsake” was first used. The recorder achieved its real pre-eminence during the Renaissance when it was the only wind instrument with its own tutorial. This instruction manual was written by Sylvestro Ganassi in 1535 and showed that great technical brilliance was possible over a range of nearly three octaves.

The recorder is held outward from the player’s lips, rather than to the side, like a traverse flute. The breath is compressed into a linear stream by a channel cut into the block (also called a fipple) in the mouthpiece of the instrument, and travels along the duct, called the windway. As it exits the windway, the air hits the hard edge of the body of the head, called the labium or the ramp, which causes the column of air to resonate within the tube. The recorder uses fingering (open holes, half-holes, and forking) to change notes.

Blowing harder on a recorder affects its pitch, so the dynamic range (loudness) of recorders is limited to subtleties. It’s renowned for its clear and lithe articulation, and a skilled player can take advantage of that to suggest dynamic changes. Some effects can be made by controlling the pitch with partially covered holes or alternative fingerings to accommodate harder breath pressure.

The sound of the instrument is clear and sweet, partially because it doesn’t have upper harmonics.

 

At its upper end, early recorders had a beak-like formation, which was blocked except for a narrow channel in the fipple. Today, some recorders have this beak-like shape, and others are blown into a slot cut into the fipple block itself.

The slit of the mouthpiece directs the stream of air against the sharp edge of the fipple block, which sets up vibrations. The block in the mouthpiece leaves a narrow channel for the air to pass through. The block is called a block in most countries, and in England, it’s called a fipple.

Sound in a recorder is produced in much the same way as in the flue pipes of an organ. Air is passed through a long vented tube that is a specific length to achieve the notes in the desired range. Finger holes provide the ability to change notes (unlike an organ’s pipes).

The recorder has a lightly tapered bore, widest at the mouthpiece and narrowed toward the foot on Baroque recorders, or flared at the bottom on Renaissance instruments.

Recently, organ-pipe-shaped recorders have been built with square cross-sections. These are cheaper than the traditional size, but aren’t as attractive. They have greater ranges and stronger low notes, making these newer instruments more audible when playing concertos. Some of these newer instruments can play three octaves in tune. The tenor is particularly popular because its range matches that of the traverse flute. 

When overblown, a recorder sounds the next octave, so there is no way to produce a louder sound.

Internal duct flutes are not all recorders; only recorders have eight finger holes, seven on the front and one on the back for the upper hand’s thumb. Players could choose which hand was above the other; the lowest hole was often doubled and the player could stop up the unused one with clay.

There’s some debate about whether the thumb hole at the back of the instrument was a 16th century development. Pictorial references only show the front of the instrument, so there’s no way to know. No instruments have survived to prove or disprove this theory.

By the middle of the 17th century, the double lowest hole was considered impractical, and they invented a movable hole, putting the last hole on its own section so that it could be rotated to suit the player. It was at this point that four new keys were added to the bass and contrabass forms. Two of these keys were operated by foot pedals.

Double recorders weren’t common in the 16th century, but they did happen. The two pipes lay side-by-side and were carved from a single block of wood. There are two forms of this instrument, one where the holes are pierced in staggered positions and the other where the holes are side-by-side. The side-by-side version survived because adjacent holes could be stopped by fingers on the other hand—it was a more limber instrument to play, but it also required a certain agility from the player.

Double recorders during the Baroque were bored out of the same piece of wood with the finger holes close together so that each pair could be closed with a single finger. The width of the holes, the bore of the tubes, and the position of the flutes in the block was different for each of the two instruments, and it was possible to obtain an interval of a third between each pair of parallel finger holes. The instrument was popular in England and Switzerland. A fellow called Christian Schlegel of Basel was one of the best double recorder makers in the 18th century.

French innovations were brought to London by Frenchman Pierre Bressan (1663-17310). Thomas Stanesby (c1668-1734) was an instrument maker, mostly of oboes, in London—he and his son were the other important recorder-makers of the 18th century, along with Bressan.

In the early 20th century, Peter Harlan (a German) developed a (single) recorder that allowed simpler fingering, called the German fingering. Such instruments have a slightly smaller fifth hole, whereas Baroque and neo-Baroque instruments have the fourth hole smaller. This causes a difference in fingering for F and B-flat. Sadly, it also causes other notes to be out of tune. German fingering was popular in Europe, especially in Germany in the 1930s but was obsolete by the 1950s as musicians got more serious about the recorder and the limitations of German fingering became more of an annoyance.

In half-hole or forking fingering, air leaks out through part of the hole making the pitch higher than expected. Some Baroque instruments have divided holes to facilitate playing these notes accurately. Half-covering or not covering a hole and fully covering lower holes is called “forking” and has a different tonal character than those notes in the scale that peel up from the bottom.

Pinching is when the thumbhole in the back is only partially covered, and the higher notes that are achieved by this method call upon the harmonics of the instrument. Again, there is some degradation of the tone.

Recorders can be made of wood, plastic, or ivory. When they’re made of wood, they’re maple, pear, rosewood, granadilla, or boxwood with a block of red cedar. Plastic recorders are mass-produced and are cheaper to maintain than wood, and the good quality ones are equal to or better than the lower-end wooden recorders. Most beginners’ or children’s instruments are plastic.

Modern instruments are based on Baroque style, although some makers reproduce Renaissance-styled instruments. Those (Renaissance-style) have a wider, less tapered bore and usually have a less reedy and more blending tone, well-suited to consorts.

Until 1650 or so, the instrument was a smooth shaft that suited the taste of the Renaissance. But the Baroque style was much more complicated and the recorder was reshaped accordingly. The tube left the lathe with expansions at either end, so that the form curved gracefully.

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The change in shape from the Renaissance to the Baroque was largely attributed to the Hotteterre family (see more on them in Instrument Biography: The Flute). They developed the tapered bore, which brought the lower hand’s fingers closer together, allowing a greater range and making it possible to build the instrument in several jointed sections. Separating the instrument into sections allowed more accurate shaping of each individual section, and it offered minor tuning adjustments by lengthening and shortening the length of the instrument with a change to the position of the sections.

In the mid-20th century, recorders were made of Bakelite and plastics, so they were cheap and easy to produce. This made them popular in schools, as they could be bought in bulk for a good price. They are pre-tuned and easy to play in tune, even at the most basic level of skill. Mastery, however, isn’t so easy. The success in schools has led to the misunderstanding of the recorder as a children’s instrument.

At the beginning of the 16th century, the recorder was being made in four sizes—a hundred years later, Praetorius describes eight sizes. The larger instruments have double-winged keys instead of the duplicate lower holes, and were blown through a brass S-shaped tube (like the bassoon) for greater ease in performance.

The treble recorder (called the alto in the US) is most commonly used as a solo instrument. If no size is specified, it’s this one that is meant. The descant (called the soprano in the USA) also has an important repertoire of solo music. There is some tenor and bass solo music, but not much compared to alto and soprano.

The largest recorder, the contrabass, even larger than the bass recorder, is seldom used due to its cost and size. It stands about 6.5 feet tall, and is in the key of F.

An experimental piccolino has been produced, which plays about 12 notes above the range of the soprano. The fingering for this instrument requires very small hands, and the holes tend to be side-by side rather than lined up down the length of the instrument (like an ocarina), so it’s pretty darned hard to play.

In ensembles, soprano, alto, tenor, and bass are most common, and many players play all the instruments and switch, as the needs of the music demand. Great basses and contrabasses are less common. The sopranino doesn’t blend well and is usually reserved for recorder orchestras and for playing concertos (solo pieces with orchestral backup). Larger recorders require larger hands, and instruments larger than the tenor have keys to enable the reach and provide a better tonal response (through consistently complete hole coverage). Some altos also have keys to aid in completely covering the holes.

The largest recorders are so long that the player can’t reach the finger holes and still reach the mouthpiece with the lips. Instruments larger than the bass (and some basses, too) use a bocal or a crook, which is a thin metal tube like that of the bassoon, to conduct the player’s breath to the windway, or they may be constructed in sections that fold the recorder into a shape that brings the windway back into reach.

Range

German instrument-maker Sebastian Virdung (born c.1465-   ) used alto, tenor, and bass sizes in his “Musica getuscht” of 1511 but Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) lists eight, from the great bass to sopranino. Praetorius recommends a consort of the larger sizes as sounding best because the lower ones had a soft and expressive tone suitable for all sorts of music.

Each different size of recorder comes with its own register. They are usually tuned in C or F, meaning that their lowest note is a C or an F. There are instruments in D, B-flat, G, and E-flat, but those are more common historically than today. The treble (alto) recorder is in G, and is commonly used in Renaissance ensembles. The tenor recorder is in D, and is also called a voice-flute because it was much like a human voice in its range.

Most recorders are pitched at “concert pitch” (A=440 Hz), but other pitches are available. For Baroque instruments, A=415 Hz is standard, and Renaissance instruments are at A=466. These alternative tunings are a compromise between historical accuracy and what is practical for playing in groups. There’s an alto pitched at A=403, and there are makers who offer two middle sections, each at a different pitch, so the instrument can be immediately adaptable. (A 415-pitch is an exact half-step lower than 440, so many other instruments, such as vielles, viola da gamba, and harpsichords, can be adapted relatively quickly.)

Music isn’t usually transposed for the recorder, but is written in the same key as it’s played. Some family members must transpose for the octave (soprano and above, and bass and great bass). Recorders are referred to as D-fingered, C-fingered, G-fingered, F-fingered, etc. based on their lowest notes (with all the finger holes closed). Players must know at least C- and F-fingering or spend some time transposing at sight.

Sizes from garklein down through tenor are notated in treble clef and bass and lower are notated in the bass clef. The six-inch-long garklein sounds two octaves above the written pitch, even higher than the sopranino and soprano, which both sound one octave above the written pitch. The alto and tenor sizes sound as written, and the bass and great bass sound one octave above the written bass (in bass clef). These transpositions are written by adding a small “8” above or below the treble or bass clef for those instruments that don’t sound as written, although it’s not always written in, and the transpositions must be assumed from context. Contrabass and sub-contrabass sound as written, and the octocontrabass sounds an octave below written pitch.

Recorders sound an octave above the human voice after which they’re named (soprano, alto, tenor, bass). They don’t sound like they’re an octave higher though, because of the harmonics involved in making the notes.

Michael Praetorius describes a narrower range than modern instruments have. This is partially from improvements in construction since his time and partially from the general skills of today’s players. Reproductions of period instruments often have a range of as little as an octave and a half, and modern instruments usually have a little more than two octaves.

Some reproductions use Sylvestro Ganassi’s fingerings and offer the larger range of modern instruments—music publishers mean that the range is of two octaves or more when they refer to Ganassi recorder.

Most recorder pieces encompass two octaves, except in virtuoso pieces. Higher notes are more difficult to play, and fingerings vary from instrument to instrument. It’s possible to hit some additional notes by covering the end of the instrument. Usually, this is accomplished with the player’s thigh. Some makers add a key to help with this note, and a longer bore can help reach these notes as well. Although common in 20th century music and later, this maneuver is seldom used in pre-20th century music.

Most modern recorders are based on the designs by Bressan, Stanesby, and Denner. The Denner family in Nuremberg were continental recorder makers from the 18th century.

Popular music in the 20th century required inventing new noises, rhythms, and effects, such as flutter tonguing and overblowing to produce multiphonics.

The Name

Called the recorder since the 14th century, the earliest known use of the term was in the household of the Earl of Derby (who later became King Henry IV) in 1388—he called it the fistula nomine Recordour which comes from ricordare especiale, which essentially means “remember” in Italian.

The recorder was called the flauto in Italian until the 18th century. Italian is the language (still) used in writing music. The instrument called the flute today was then known as the traverse. This name anomaly led to some music being performed on possibly the wrong instrument. Today, the recorder is known as the flauto dolce in Italian (sweet flute), with equivalents in other Latin languages, such as the flauta doce in Portuguese and flaute dulce in Spanish. In Portuguese and Spanish, the term “flauta” is ambiguous, as it can mean a traverse flute, a recorder, or even some other kind of wind instrument, like the pan flute, and some Central and South American instruments.

In French, the word flûte is similarly ambiguous—the French recorder is usually called the flûte a bec, or beaked flute. The Spanish picked up on this descriptive term and also called it the flauta de pico. The Old French name was flute à neuf trous for the recorder that had two holes in the lowest position depending on the handedness of the player.

From the “block” (fipple plug) in German, the recorder is known as a Blockflöte and the modern flute is known as theQuerflöte (the traverse flute), the Grossflöte (great flute) or simply the Flöte. There’s also the Schnabelflöte, the mouth (or beak) flute for the recorder. Dutch follows the same convention as German, with blokfluit being the recorder and dwarsfluit the traverse flute.

An illustration of a recorder appears in England during the 12th century, but the name doesn’t occur until the 14th century. The name means “keepsake.” The English also call it the fipple-flute.

Bach called for two flauti d’echo in his 4th Brandenburg Concerto in G major. This instrument was the double recorder, two recorders (both in F) connected together by leather flanges. One was rigged to play softly and the other loudly, causing the echo effect and the name.

Recorder Composers

The numbers are too many to list, but I’ll tell you a few of my favorites: Guillaume Dufay, Johannes Ockeghem, Josquin Des Prez, Heinrich Isaac (c1450-1517), Orlando di Lasso (c1532-1594), William Byrd (c1540-1543), and John Dowland (1563-1626). All of these gentlemen composed music for singers that could also be played by recorder consorts.

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) used the flageolet in Rinaldo and in Acis and Galatea. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) used the flageolet in Sacred Cantatas ## 96 and 103. Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) wrote three concertos for the flautino and used it in the orchestra for his opera. Initially thought to mean a piccolo, later studies have determined that he called for a sopranino recorder.

Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) was probably one of the last to specify that a recorder rather than a flute be used in his Orfeo and Euridice.

Henry Purcell (c1659-1695), J.S. Bach (1685-1750), Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), and Vivaldi (1678-1741) all used the recorder to suggest shepherds and to imitate birds in their music, a theme that continued through the 20th century.

More modern composers for the recorder include Edgard Varèse (1883-1965), Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006), Richard Harvey (1953-   ), Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), Josef Tal (1910-2008), John Tavener (1944-   ), Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), and Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006).

Carl Orff (1895-1982) was largely responsible for the popularity of recorders for use in schools, and is most famous for his Carmina Burana. He wrote “Music for Children” with many pieces for recorders, plus other instruments.

Recorder Players

There are lots of them. I’ll list just a few. Frans Brüggen (1934-    ), Hans-Martin Linde (1930-   ), Bernard Krainis (1924-2000), David Munrow (1942-1976), Kees Otten (1924-  ), Michala Petri (1958-  ), Piers Adams (1963-   ), and Charlotte Barbour-Condini (1997-   ). Leticia Berlin and Frances Blaker, and their group Tibia Recorder Duo are my two local favorites. I’m not mentioning the years they were born because I don’t want them to bop me on the noggin with a recorder.

Carl Dolmetsch (1911-1997) was the son of Arnold, the big recorder designer and builder. Carl commissioned works from the leading composers of his day.

Famous groups include Sour Cream (led by Frans Brüggen), Flautando Köln, Flanders Recorder Quartet, Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet, Quartet New Generation have all combined mixtures of historical and contemporary repertoire.

Popular Music:

Loads of rock and rollers have used the recorder, including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones (Ruby Tuesday), Yes (I’ve seen all Good People), Jefferson Airplane, Led Zeppelin (Stairway to Heaven), Jimi Hendrix, Fairport Convention, and Mannheim Steamroller.

Sources:

“Musical Instruments; Their History in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Miall. George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., London, 1949.

“A Dictionary of Early Music; From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.

“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1940.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.