The recorder is a woodwind musical instrument of the family known as fipple flutes or internal duct flutes — whistle-like instruments which include the tin whistle and ocarina. The recorder is end-blown and the mouth of the instrument is constricted by a wooden plug, known as a block or fipple. It is distinguished from other members of the family by having holes for seven fingers (the lower one or two often doubled to facilitate the production of semitones) and one for the thumb of the uppermost hand. The bore of the recorder is occasionally cylindrical but is usually tapered slightly, being widest at the mouthpiece end.
History of the Recorder
The recorder was popular from medieval times but declined in the eighteenth century in favor of orchestral woodwind instruments, such as the flute, oboe, and the clarinet, which have greater chromatic and dynamic range. During its heyday, the recorder was traditionally associated with birds, shepherds, miraculous events, funerals, marriages, and amorous scenes. Images of recorders can be found in literature and artwork associated with all these. Purcell, Bach, Telemann and Vivaldi used the recorder to suggest shepherds and birds, and the pattern continued into the twentieth century.
The recorder was revived in the twentieth century, partly in the pursuit of historically informed performances of early music, but also because of its suitability as a simple instrument for teaching music and its appeal to amateur players. Today, it is often thought of as a child’s instrument, but there are many excellent virtuosic players who can demonstrate the instrument’s full potential as a solo instrument. The sound of the recorder is remarkably clear and sweet, partly because of the lack of upper harmonics and predominance of odd harmonics in the sound.
The Name of the Instrument
Up to the eighteenth Century, the instrument was called ‘Flauto’ (flute) in Italian, the language used in writing music, whereas the instrument we today call the flute was called ‘Flauto traverso’. This has led to some pieces of music occasionally being mistakenly performed on modern flute rather than on recorder.
Today, the recorder is known as ‘flauto dolce’ in Italian (soft flute), ‘flute à bec’ in French (beaked flute) and ‘Blockflöte’ in German (block flute).
The English name may come from a Middle English use of the word record, meaning, “to practice a piece of music.”
Internal duct-flutes have a long history: an example of an Iron Age specimen, made from a sheep bone, exists in the Leeds City Museum.
The true recorders are distinguished from other internal duct flutes by having eight finger holes; seven on the front of the instrument and one, for the upper hand thumb, on the back, and having a slightly tapered bore, with its widest end at the mouthpiece. It is thought that these instruments evolved in the fourteenth century, but an earlier origin is a matter of some debate, based on the depiction of various whistles in medieval paintings. To this day whistles -as used in Irish folk music- have six holes. The original design of the transverse flute (and its fingering) was based on the same six holes, but it was later much altered by Theobald Böhm.
One of the earliest surviving instruments was discovered in a castle moat in Dordrecht, the Netherlands in 1940, and has been dated to the 14th century. It is, however, in very poor condition. A second damaged fourteenth century recorder was found in a latrine in northern Germany (in Göttingen): other fourteenth-century examples survive from Esslingen (Germany) and Tartu (Estonia), and there is a fragment of a possible fourteenth-fifteenth-century bone recorder at Rhodes (Greece).
The earliest recorders were designed to be played either right-handed (with the right hand lowermost) or left-handed (with the left hand lowermost). The holes were all in a line except for the lowest hole, for the lower hand little finger. This last hole was offset from the center line, and drilled twice, once on each side. The player would fill in the hole they didn’t want to use with wax. In later years, the right-hand style of playing was settled on as standard.
The recorder achieved great popularity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This development was linked to the fact that art music (as opposed to folk music) was no longer the exclusive domain of nobility and clergy. The advent of the printing press made it available to the more affluent commoners as well. The popularity of the instrument also reached the courts however. For example, at Henry VIII’s death in 1547, an inventory of his possessions included 76 recorders. There are also numerous references to the instrument in contemporary literature (e.g., Shakespeare and Milton).
During the Renaissance musical instruments were principally used in dance music and as accompaniment for voices. There are many vocal works with non-texted lines, which possibly were written for instruments. In addition, some vocal music was easily playable with instruments, chansons, for example. Nevertheless, composers also produced more and more works exclusively for instruments, often based on dance music. (e.g., the Lachrimae Pavans by John Dowland). Often they did not specify the instruments to use although some, such as Anthony Holborne indicated that their music was suitable for the recorder. However, even when the composer specified, for instance, viols da gamba, the music could successfully be played on recorders. A taste for ensembles of like instruments developed in this era, and so arose “consorts” (groups of musicians playing the same type of instrument) and the families of instruments of various sizes. The diversity of sizes in an instrument family allowed the consort to play music with a very large pitch range. Some of the well known Renaissance composers who wrote instrumental music, or whose vocal music plays well on recorders, were:
- Guillaume Dufay
- Johannes Ockeghem
- Josquin Des Prez
- Heinrich Isaac
- Ludwig Senfl
- Orlando di Lasso
- William Byrd
- John Dowland
- Anthony Holborne
Polyphony was the dominant music style of the Renaissance, but composers also began to write chordal pieces. The Medieval custom of juxtaposing two or three different melodies coexisted with “imitative polyphony.” Imitative polyphony uses only one melodic line, but breaks it in pieces and divides it among the different parts. One part plays the melody, then the other parts play it in their turns. The music of this epoch was characterized by complex improvised ornamentation.
Many instruments survive from this period, including an incomplete set of recorders in Nuremberg which date from the sixteenth century and are still in a playable condition. Similar to the Medieval recorders, and unlike the Baroque style recorders typically used today, Renaissance recorders have a wide, more or less cylindrical bore. They have powerful low notes (much more so than the Baroque recorders) but can usually only be played reliably over a range of an octave and a sixth. The wide bore means that a greater quantity of air is required to play the instrument, but this makes them more responsive.
Several changes in the construction of recorders took place in the seventeenth century, resulting in the type of instrument generally referred to as baroque recorders, as opposed to the earlier renaissance recorders. These innovations allowed baroque recorders to play two full chromatic octaves of notes, and to possess a tone which was regarded as “sweeter” than that of the earlier instruments.
In the eighteenth century, rather confusingly, the instrument was normally referred to simply as Flute (Flauto) — the transverse form was separately referred to as Traverso. In the 4th Brandenburg Concerto in G major, J.S. Bach calls for two “flauti d’echo.” The musicologist Thurston Dart mistakenly suggested that it was intended for flageolets at a higher pitch, and in a recording under Neville Marriner using Dart’s editions it was played an octave higher than usual on sopranino recorders. An argument can be made that the instruments Bach identified as “flauti d’echo” were echo flutes, an example of which survives in Leipzig to this day. It consisted of two recorders in f’ connected together by leather flanges: one instrument was voiced to play softly, the other loudly. Vivaldi wrote three concertos for the “flautino” and required the same instrument in his opera orchestra. In modern performance, the “flautino” was initially thought to be the piccolo. It is now generally accepted, however, that the instrument intended was a recorder with lowest note d5.
The decline of the recorder
The instrument went into decline after the eighteenth century, being used for about the last time as an other-worldly sound by Gluck in his opera Orfeo ed Euridice.
By the Romantic era, the recorder had been almost entirely superseded by the flute and clarinet. Nonetheless there were probably more works (ca 800) written for the recorder during the nineteenth century than in all the preceding centuries: the instrument simply sprouted keys and changed its name, being known as the ‘csakan’ or “flute douce.”
The recorder was revived around the turn of the twentieth century by early music enthusiasts, but used almost exclusively for this purpose. It was considered a mainly historical instrument. Even in the early twentieth century it was uncommon enough that Stravinsky thought it to be a kind of clarinet, which is not surprising since the early clarinet was, in a sense, derived from the recorder, at least in its outward appearance.
The eventual success of the recorder in the modern era is often attributed to Arnold Dolmetsch in the UK and various German scholar/performers. Whilst he was responsible for broadening interest beyond that of the early music specialist in the UK, Dolmetsch was far from being solely responsible for the recorder’s revival. On the Continent his efforts were preceded by those of musicians at the Brussels Conservatoire (where Dolmetsch received his training), and by the performances of the Bogenhausen Künstlerkapelle (Bogenhausen Artists’ Band) based in Germany. Over the period from 1890-1939 the Bogenhausers played music of all ages, including arrangements of classical and romantic music. Also in Germany, the work of Willibald Gurlitt, Werner Danckerts and Gustav Scheck proceeded quite independently of the Dolmetsches.
Among the influential virtuosos who figure in the revival of the recorder as a serious concert instrument in the latter part of the twentieth century are Frans Brüggen, Hans-Martin Linde, Bernard Kranis, and David Munrow. Brüggen recorded most of the landmarks of the historical repertoire and commissioned a substantial number of new works for the recorder. Munrow’s 1975 double album The Art of the Recorder remains as an important anthology of recorder music through the ages.
Modern composers of great stature have written for the recorder, including Paul Hindemith, Luciano Berio, John Tavener, Michael Tippett, Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bernstein, Gordon Jacob, and Edmund Rubbra.
It is also occasionally used in popular music, including that of groups such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Jimi Hendrix.
Some modern music calls for the recorder to produce unusual noises, rhythms and extended technique effects, by such techniques as flutter-tongueing and overblowing to produce multiphonics. David Murphy’s 2002 composition Bavardage is an example, as is Hans Martin Linde’s Music for a Bird.
Among modern recorder ensembles, the trio Sour Cream Trio (led by Frans Brüggen), the Flanders Recorder Quartet and the Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet have programmed remarkable mixtures of historical and contemporary repertoire.
Use in schools
In the mid-twentieth century, manufacturers were able to make recorders out of bakelite and (more successfully) plastics which made them cheap and quick to produce. Because of this, recorders became very popular in schools, as they are one of the cheapest instruments to buy in bulk. They are also relatively easy to play at a basic level as they are pre-tuned, and are not too strident in even the most musically-inept hands. It is, however, incorrect to assume that mastery is similarly easy — like other instruments, the recorder requires talent and study to play at an advanced level.
The success of the recorder in schools is partly responsible for its poor reputation as a “child’s instrument.” Although the recorder is ready-tuned, it is very easy to warp the pitch by over or under blowing, which often results in an unpleasant sound from beginners.
Types of recorder
Recorders are made in a variety of sizes. So, even though each recorder has a range of only 2 octaves, a recorder ensemble can play across 7 octaves. Recorders are most often tuned in C and F. However, instruments in D, G, and Eb were not uncommon historically and are still found today, especially the recorder in D, which is called a “voice-flute.” Refer to the table to see the entire recorder family in C and F. The recorders most often used for solo music are the soprano (also known as descant) and alto (also known as treble) recorders. Classroom instructors most commonly use the soprano. The largest recorders, larger than the bass recorder, are less often used, since they are expensive and their sizes (the contrabass in F is about 2 meters tall) make them hard to handle. An experimental ‘piccolino’ has also been produced which plays a fourth above the garklein. However, considering that the garklein is already too small for adult-sized fingers to play easily, this piccolino was simply not practical.
The larger recorders have great enough distances between the finger holes that most people’s hands can not reach them all. So, instruments larger than the tenor (and sometimes the tenor recorders, as well) have keys to enable the player to cover the holes. In addition, the largest recorders are so long that the player cannot simultaneously reach the finger holes with the hands and reach the mouthpiece with the lips. So, instruments larger than the bass (and often the bass recorders, as well) have long, curved pipes (which are called bocals) to conduct the player’s breath to the windway.
Today, high-quality recorders are made from a range of different hardwoods, such as oiled pear wood, rosewood or boxwood with a block of red cedar wood. However, many recorders are made of plastic, which is cheaper, is resistant to damage from condensation, and does not require re-oiling. While higher-end professional instruments are almost always wooden, many plastic recorders currently being produced are equal to or better than lower-end wooden instruments. Beginners’ instruments, the sort usually found in children’s ensembles, are also made of plastic and can be purchased quite cheaply.
Most modern recorders are based on instruments from the baroque period, although some specialist makers produce replicas of the earlier renaissance style of instrument. These latter instruments have a wider, less tapered bore and typically possess a loud and strident tone.
In the early part of the twentieth century, Peter Harlan developed a recorder which allowed for slightly simpler fingering. This is German fingering or doigte moderne. A recorder designed for German fingering has a hole five smaller than hole four, baroque and neo-baroque recorders have hole four smaller than hole five. The principal difference in fingering is for ‘F’ and ‘B♭’, on a neo-baroque instrument these must be fingered 0 123 4-67. With German fingering this becomes 0 123 4—. German fingering became popular in Europe, especially Germany, in the 1930s, and can be found in use in various parts of the world including Japan. The instruments have been criticized by Theodor Adorno for having poorer tuning of sharps and flats and an ‘insipid and childish’ sound.
Some newer designs of recorder are now being produced. One change are recorders that are square section larger instruments, which are cheaper than the normal designs if, perhaps, not so elegant. Another area is the development of instruments with a greater dynamic range and more powerful bottom notes. These modern designs make it easier to be heard when playing concerti.
The evolution of the renaissance recorder into the baroque instrument is generally attributed to the Hottetere family, in France. They developed the ideas of a more tapered bore (allowing greater range) and the construction of instruments in several jointed sections. This innovation allowed more accurate shaping of each section and also offered the player minor tuning adjustments, by slightly pulling out one of the sections to lengthen the instrument.
The French innovations were taken to London by Pierre Bressan, a set of whose instruments survive in the Grosvenor Museum, Chester, as well as examples in other European museums. Bressan’s contemporary, Thomas Stanesby, was born in Derbyshire but became an instrument maker in London. He and his son (Thomas Stanesby junior) were the other important British-based recorder-makers of the early eighteenth century.
In continental Europe, the Johann Christoph Denner family of Nürnberg were the most celebrated makers of this period.
Many modern recorders are based on the dimensions and construction of surviving instruments produced by Bressan, the Stanesbys or the Denner family.
The recorder is a very social instrument. Many amateurs enjoy playing in large groups or in one-to-a-part chamber groups, and there is a wide variety of music for such groupings including many modern works. Groups of different sized instruments help to compensate for the limited note range of the individual instruments. Four part arrangements with a soprano, alto, tenor and bass part played on the corresponding recorders are common, although more complex arrangements with multiple parts for each instrument and parts for lower and higher instruments may also be regularly encountered.
One of the more interesting developments in recorder playing over the last 30 years has been the development of recorder orchestras. They can have 60 or more players and use up to nine sizes of instrument. In addition to arrangements, many new pieces of music, including symphonies, have been written for these ensembles. There are recorder orchestras in Germany, Holland, Japan, The United States, Canada, the UK and several other countries.