Introduction of Recorder


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. 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 tapered slightly, being widest at the mouthpiece end and narrowest towards the foot on Baroque recorders, or flared almost like a trumpet at the bottom on Renaissance instruments. Recorders can be made out of wood, plastic or ivory.

The recorder was popular in medieval times through the baroque era, but declined in the 18th century in favour of orchestral woodwind instruments, such as the flute, oboe, and clarinet. During its heyday, the recorder was traditionally associated with pastoral scenes, miraculous events, funerals, marriages and amorous scenes. Images of recorders can be found in literature and artwork associated with all of these. Purcell, Bach, Telemann and Vivaldi used the recorder to suggest shepherds and imitate birds in their music, a theme that continued in 20th-century music.

The recorder was revived in the 20th century, partly in the pursuit of historically informed performance 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 professional players who demonstrate the instrument's full solo range. 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. 

History of the Recorder

After about 1750 the recorder generally passed out of vogue, giving way to the modern transverse flute, due to advances in technology and the flute's ability to acheive a greater dynamic range.

The flute type of instruments were known to exist as early as 4000 B.C. in Egypt, Sumer and Israel. They have been traced to China in 2000 B.C. and to pre-Columbian Mexico and South America. These were made of clay or wood. In Europe, the transverse flute did not make its appearance until the 12th century and was called a swegel. The end blown flute or recorder has been around in its current form since about 800 A.D. The transverse flute was used primarily for military purposes while the recorder was the flute of choice for artistic purposes.

The recorder is the most important type of whistle (or fipple) flute. It has a tone quality that is highly individual and unique to each instrument. It can be soft, slightly reedy or mellow. In the span of time since the Middle Ages to the mid 16th century it evolved into a complete family from the treble to bass and was the basis of much important music of the late Renaissance (1500's).

By the late 18th century, one size (the Alto) remained in common use. This instrument was called the flauto by J. S. Bach and G. F. Handel. The flute parts of these composers and others of the period were written and performed on the F recorder. Occasionally the use of the flauto piccolo (little flute) was specified because of its high and piercing tone. The flauto piccolo is our modern day Sopranino.

In the 20 century the recorder underwent a revival begun by Arnold Dolmetsch in England and after 1918 by German manufacturers using large-scale production methods. In the 1970's Japan entered the market producing a large number of plastic recorders, some of which rival traditional wooden recorders in intonation and articulation.

There are two fingering systems, the Baroque (or English) and German. The German fingering has not gained favor and the Baroque is most often used.

Five sizes of recorder are commonly available. They are, according to country of origin:

There are other sizes that are very uncommon (and the big basses can be very expensive!).

  1. Garklein, pitched higher than the Sopranino. Only about 6 in. long (in C).
  2. Alto in G (not recomended since F is the traditional key for this instrument.
  3. Great Bass, pitched lower than the Bass (in C).
  4. Contrabass, a giant of a thing pitched very low (in F).
  5. Sub Contrabass, the biggest of them all. Can be about 9 ft. tall! (in C)

The Alto has the most extensive literature followed by the Soprano. Generally speaking, the music of the Soprano can be played on a Tenor and the Alto music can be played on the Sopranino.
Because of the availability of modern recorders much has been written for them in the 20th century. The F instruments are most played for traditional repertoire and the C instruments are most used for popular music inasmuch as the C range most approximates that of the human voice.


A Brief History of Music
The history of western music is based on European tradition. The student will often encounter music designated in languages other than English. The most important designations are:

The above chart will be encountered in different combinations but will give the player a guide to the instruments. It is unclear in many cases which recorder is used, therefore, by reading the score and understanding something of the historical basis of the music, the scholar/musician can make a value judgement on the intentions of the composer.

The music of the recorder is termed "classical" by most. This is not, however, the case. From the middle ages to the beginning of the 20th century music was often based on popular themes. Generally speaking, prior to the phonograph, all music was "popular" or "pop". It was influenced by the Church, folk songs and the interpretations of both amateur and professional musicians. When folks gathered they danced and sang to the tunes of the day. It is fair to liken the music of Bach to Rock and Roll . . . as a leisure activity of the period and the Recorder to the Electric Guitar as the popular instrument of the late middle ages. The fun-loving crowds of Bach's time would grab a couple of jugs of wine, go over to Johnny's and jam after church. Historically, Johann Sebastian Bach would improvise all night or until the wine was gone. 


General Musical Periods


In the above encapsulation, some dates overlap such as the Baroque and Rococo. This is historically due to the fact the musicologists consider the death of J. S. Bach in 1750 as the end of the Baroque while Bach's sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel, Wilhelm Friedman and Johann Christian Bach are assigned to the Rococo even though they were writing during their father's lifetime.

There are many composers who wrote for the recorder. Three of the most important and prolific were; C.P.E. Bach (1714-1788), George Friedrich Handel (1685-1759) and Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767). The student who continues to study the recorder and its literature will find them quite prominant. Because of these composers, the years 1725 to 1760 are considered the "Golden Age of the Recorder".

The greatest problem in playing traditional music on the recorder is what the Germans call Auffuhrungspraxis (practice of performance). Prior to 1550 the instruments were not specified in the sources. There are passages of vocal character with no words, music that is possible on a great many instruments and the fact the many instruments of the period are now obsolete and forgotten. It was the practice of the musicians to play a piece on whatever instrument was handy and could play the indicated notes. The idea of writing for a specific instrument during the middle ages and Renaissance was foreign to a 15th century composer. To them, the only important thing was to play the music. Very often the written score was absent of accidentals (sharps and flats) and had no tempo or dynamic instructions. It was understood that the musician would supply whatever embellishments he thought the piece required. Therefore, today much of the traditional recorder music is attributed to a certain composer based on style by an educated guess of an editor or arranger. It is quite proper for the modern player to provide his own interpretation and embellishments to early music.