bout the Recorder
Many of us first encountered the recorder in grade school. Like much of the material presented to children of that age, the introduction to the recorder was simplified. You probably had a cheap plastic instrument, and played simple tunes. To make matters worse, there were probably members of the class who struggled on the instrument, frequently played out of tune, and hit wrong notes. Experiences such as this have led many to think that the recorder is of limited musical value. This could not be farther from the truth. The following paragraphs will provide a more proper introduction to the instrument, its history, and literature.
The recorder is a woodwind instrument. It is usually composed of three sections: the head, the section into which you blow; the middle, which has six finger-holes and a thumb-hole, and the foot which has the seventh finger-hole. The sections assemble to form a hollow tube whose bore narrows towards the foot. The bore at the top end of the head section is almost completely closed by a fipple. Only a narrow windway through which a player blows is left open between the fipple and the body of the recorder. The most noticeable feature of the head is a small rectangular opening on its front, called the window. Just beyond this opening is a lip, which slopes upward until it is merges seamlessly with the body of the instrument. The recorder produces sound in the same fashion as a whistle, by directing air from the windway against the lip. Thus the lip is very important. It is also very delicate, and may be damaged if you touch it. The recorder is able to produce different pitches by changing the effective length of the instrument. This is accomplished by uncovering some of the finger-holes. The recorder is differentiated from other whistles, such as the penny whistle and flageolet, by the presence of a thumb hole.
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Over the course of the past six hundred years the recorder has been given several names. The following paragraph briefly considers its monikers and their meaning. The term recorder has been used in the English language since the beginning of the fifteenth century to refer to the instrument. At that time, to record meant to sing like a bird. Thus, it is not surprising to find that throughout the Baroque era the recorder was associated with birdsong and pastoral music. Record also meant to hum softly, as ones does when one recollects a tune. In this regard, Brian Trowell suggested that the term recorder is related to the Italian word, ricordo, which means a remembrance, memento, or note. In French, the recorder is best known as the flute-a-bec. This name refers to the beak-like appearance of the recorder's mouthpiece. One of its German names, Schnabelflote, also refers to its beak-like appearance. In German, the recorder is usually referred to as the blockflote. This name makes reference to the fipple in the head of the recorder. The English version of this name is the fipple flute. In Italian, the recorder is called the flauto dolce, the sweet flute. The French name flute douce is related to the Italian one. Other English names for the recorder include consort flute, English flute, hand flute, and common flute.
The early history of the recorder is difficult to trace, as whistle flutes existed since prehistoric times. It is not clear when the characteristic thumb-hole was added to create what we know as the recorder. There are many depictions of wind instruments in artwork from the later half of the Middle Ages. However, it is difficult to distinguish reed instruments from whistles, let alone identify a thumb-hole which is on the back of the recorder. Depictions of instruments are also present in sculpture. There is a carving of what is believed to be a recorder on a choir stall in Chichester. It dates from the thirteenth century. There are a handful of other examples, such as a statue in front of the musician's gallery at Exeter Cathedral and an illustration in the Ormesby Psalter. However even these carvings are rather ambiguous and may actually represent other instruments such as the shawm or pipe.
A handful of Medieval recorders have been discovered in the last century. Many were found in latrines, and another was found buried underneath a house at Dordrecht. These are thought to date from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, although some may be as old as the thirteenth century. Unlike modern recorders, Medieval recorders were made from a single piece of wood and had a roughly cylindrical bore. The lowest finger-hole is drilled in duplicate. One should not mistake this for an eighth finger-hole, or think that the additional hole was used to play accidentals. Rather the duplicate hole is present for ergonomic reasons. It allows a person to play the instrument with either the right or the left hand. The unused fingerhole was plugged with wax. From this we can infer that recorders were not fabricated for specific individuals, and may have been shared by several performers. Most Medieval recorders lack the beak-like mouthpiece that is characteristic of modern ones.
The rise of the recorder during the Renaissance is illustrated by written records of the instrument. A handful of early references to the recorder are found in fifteenth century literature, such as the romance "Squyr of Lowe Degre", and the Scottish poem "Buke of the Howlate maid be Holland." From these we learn that the recorder was used as a solo instrument, as well as to accompany songs. By the sixteenth century there are a large number of written records of the recorder, some of which are exclusively devoted to it. Recorders are described in Sebastian Virdung's "Musica Getutscht und Ausgezogen" from 1511. Virdung writes that recorders are made in three sizes, the diskant whose lowest note is g, tenor whose lowest note is c, and bass whose lowest note is F. This suggests that by the early sixteenth century recorders were used to play polyphonic music, and not simply used to play a melody. This differentiated recorders from transverse flutes, which were not made in tenor and bass sizes because of ergonomic reasons. From the illustrations it is not possible to determine whether or not the instrument had yet developed its characteristic beak-shaped mouthpiece. What is clear is that the recorder had not yet lost the duplicate finger-hole. The bass recorder has a key to play the lowest note. The key is forked, like the tail of a swallow. This shape has the same function as the double finger-hole, so that the instrument can be played with either hand. The book also indicates that the instruments have the range of a twelfth, and provides fingerings for the different pitches. In 1528 Martinus Agricola published his "Instrumentalis Deudsch". Its content relating to recorders is similar to that of Virdung's book. However, it has a woodcut depicting four sizes of recorders: Discantus, Altus, Tenor, and Bassus. The earliest surviving recorder method, "Opera Intitulata Fontegara", was published by Ganassi in 1535. Inventories of musical instruments at various courts list recorders. At the time of his death Henry VIII had 76 recorders.
From sixteenth century writings and illustrations we learn that the recorder was primarily used in chamber music. It seems to have been excluded from other musical outlets such as town bands and church orchestras. This is not surprising, as these ensembles frequently use 'loud' instruments such as sackbuts, shawms, and crumhorns. Chamber music was regularly performed at the dwellings of the aristocracy. The performers were professional musicians, such as Sylvestro Ganassi who was court musician to the doge of Venice, and/or amateurs, such as King Henry VIII who not only played the recorder but also composed music. Recorders were also played at banquets and dances of the ruling class. There were a variety of other events involving nobility, such as weddings, and funerals. The festivities surrounding a wedding frequently included processions through the town, and the production of plays. Some of these plays were produced in court, while others were housed at newly built theaters. Recorders and other instruments provided entertainment at these events. Of particular note were the masques and intermedio during plays. Recorders were also played by the merchant class. Like the aristocracy, they preferred to play the instrument in their homes.
Recorders of several different sizes were played in consorts, as illustrated in a woodcut from Ganassi's Fontegara. They excelled in this role. Some other instruments, such as the flute, did not have bass instruments to fill out such a consort. Still others, such as the trumpet were loud and difficult to play. The closest competitor was the viol, which was also quite popular. However, the latter instrument was much more expensive to produce, and thus the recorder was more popular with the general public. The woodcut from Fontegara also illustrates that recorders were used to accompany vocal music, either taking the place of one of the parts, or supporting a part which was also sung. In the latter part of the sixteenth century recorders were also played in what are known as broken consorts, which consist of of different instruments such as viols, lutes, and virginals. Instrumental music from the sixteenth century rarely provided written indication that a specific part was intended for performance by a recorder. However, the clefs used may suggest the use of a particular kind of instrument. Further, paintings of performances also provide insight into orchestration. Recorders did not have the same kind of success in mixed ensembles as they did in homogenious ones. From very early on, the transverse flute seems to have been preferred over the descant recorder. Further, the newly invented violin displaced the wind instruments as the dominant upper register instrument. The larger recorders could not provide the chordal accompaniment of the theorbo or virginal. Nor were they as loud as the dulcian or bass viol.
Let us now consider the literature for the recorder from the sixteenth century. Instrumental music from the Renaissance rarely indicated that it was to be played on a particular type of instrument, such as the recorder. Rather than approach the literature from the perspective of determining the works that were played on the recorder, I shall adopt the approach of describing works that can be played on the recorder. This approach is in keeping with the sixteenth century tradition of transcribing works for different instruments.
There is a rich repertoire of music from the sixteenth century that can be played on the recorder. The music may be classified into the following six categories:
- Choral music
- Popular melodies
- Dance music
- Imitative works
- Free forms
The vast majority of music composed during the sixteenth century was written for choirs. This music falls into two categories; sacred music, and secular music. Important musical forms used in sacred music include the Mass, and motet. The most significant forms used in the secular choral music of the sixteenth century are the chanson and madrigal. Jean Mouton was the leading composer of motets in the first part of the sixteenth century. His mastery of the imitative form is displayed in Naciens Mater, a canon for eight voices. He was followed in the first half of the sixteenth century by Nicolas Gombert, Clemens non Papa, and Adrian Willaert. Although Gombert was a master of imitation, one of his best known motets, Diversi Diversa Orant, uses several preexisting melodies simultaneously. Clemens non Papa composed hundreds of motets, of which more than 230 survive. Fifteen of his masses have also been preserved. Fourteen of them are 'parody' masses, based on chansons and motets. Adrian Willaert became the Maestro di Capella of St. Marks in Venice in 1527. Like the composers mentioned above, he was also skilled in the art of imitation, as is evident in his motets Ave Regina Coelorum Mater Regis, and Verbum Bonum et Suave. He began the practice of choral antiphony, which was continued by Giovanni Gabrielli. It was the foundation built by these men that the great composers of the latter half of the sixteenth century, such as Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Orlando di Lasso, Tomas Luis de Victoria, and William Byrd, built their music. The madrigal form was developed in the early sixteenth century by composers such as Philippe Verdelot and Costanzo Festa. The form was taken up by other composers including Jacques Arcadelt, who published more than a half dozen books of madrigals. Cipriano de Rore further developed the form of the madrigal with his more dramatic elements.
Many works from the sixteenth century employ popular melodies. Some of these use the melody as a cantus firmus, literally a firm song, around which the rest of the work is written. Others simply feature the melody in the top voice. Sometimes these works take the form of songs accompanied by other instruments, while others are purely instrumental works. There is a large body of music for lute and voice that featured such melodies. Some of these works were transcriptions of choral works, such as madrigals and frottole, while others, such as aryes, where written for lute and voice. The vocal parts in these works lend themselves well to performance on the recorder. The works of Pierre Attaingnant and John Dowland are good places to begin exploring this literature. Examples of instrumental settings of pre-existant melodies are found in organ music to be used in the divine service. Sometimes a plainchant is given a chordal accompaniment, while in other circumstances it is treated imitatively, as in a motet. Outstanding examples are found in the works of Girolamo Cavazzoni, Andrea Gabrieli, and Antonio Cabezon. There are also works for melody instruments such as Fernando de Las Infantas canons over the cantus firmus Laudate Dominum Omnes Gentes.
Pieces of music were also given form by non-musical considerations. One such consideration was dance. A large amount of dance music survives from the sixteenth century. Popular dances include the pavanne, galliard, allemand, courante, and passamezzo. The music of Susato and Holborne is a good place to begin to explore the dance music of the sixteenth century.
The concept of varying existing musical material was of great importance in the Renaissance. It was used to unify the cyclic Mass, as well as create the form of a ground bass. Variation also played a role in music education of the Renaissance. Divisions, the practice of ornamenting a melody, were central to the study of many instruments. It is not surprising that instrumental music made extensive use of variation techniques. One type of work that employs variation is the ground. In it, the bass part repeats a theme while the other parts play a melody over top of it. Examples of variations occur in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book.
Imitation of a melodic line is another concept that was of great importance in the Renaissance. Imitative works usually begin with a single voice which is then followed by another voice that mimics the melody and rhythm of the first voice. The structure of the work, from its harmony to its form is created by the imitation. Several instrumental forms are characterized by their use of imitation. These include the ricercar, fantasia, and canzona. The ricercar was the analog of the motet, while the canzona was the analog of the chanson. Andrea and Giovanni Gabrielli composed numerous ricercars and canzonas.
During the sixteenth century composers began to explore idioms of expression that are inherently instrumental. Such idioms included arpegiated chords, and leaps that are unnatural to sing. Various forms such as the prelude, and toccata feature these idioms.
Let us now return to the history of the recorder. The seventeenth century saw changes in the design of the recorder and its move towards being a solo instrument. Instruments constructed of three sections, head, middle, and foot, became standard. The advantage of this method of construction was that the bore could be reamed more accurately. The disadvantage was that the joints were weak and needed to be reinforced. The latter was accomplished with ivory or metal rings. Craftsmen began to experiment with tapered bores that allowed the upper register to speak more freely. Elaborate instruments were made of solid ivory. Despite these changes, the recorder was supplanted by the transverse flute in most ensemble music. The flute had a larger range, as well as more expressive control of dynamics.
In addition to these major changes in design, recorders were produced in a greater variety of sizes and keys. Michael Praetorius lists eight sizes of recorder in his Syntagma Musicum. These range from the great bass in F, to the Klein flotlein in g''. Of these the treble in f became the standard instrument. Other recorders were sometimes described in relation to it, a soprano in d' was called a sixth flute, as it was pitched a sixth above the treble.
Recorder makers from this era include:
During the latter half of the sixteenth century several musical seeds were sown. The first of these was the conception of music in terms of triads, rather than pairs of notes. The second was the construction of ensembles with contrasting timbres. The third was the use of music in the theater. The fourth was a more liberal use of dissonance. These seeds germinated into the music of the seventeenth century.
The conception of music in terms of triads, rather than pairs of notes, led to the development of the basso continuo. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the basso continuo was used in most works. Even works which would have been performed by a whole consort during the sixteenth century, have a basso continuo in the seventeenth century. The concept of the triad also led to the rise in importance of the highest and lowest melodic lines, as the other lines were conceived chordally rather than melodically. Thus it is not surprising that works for a monophonic instrument accompanied by a basso continuo became quite popular during the seventeenth century.
An important aspect of musical form in the sixteenth century was the pairing of voices. Short sections in which two or three voices present a melody are ubiquitous. It was natural to extend this technique, so that a choir would sing a section of music and another choir would sing another. Thus the chori spezzi style was born. However, it was developed even further. Just as a voice pairing did not need to reflect the sonority of the entire ensemble, one of the choirs did not need to be identical in composition to the other. This is very much akin to the idea of a versicle and respond, rather than antiphonal singing. It is in the contrast between ensembles that the concept of the concerto was born. The concerto was developed during the seventeenth century.
During the second half of the sixteenth century music was increasingly used at theatrical performances. Music would be performed between acts of plays. These performances were labelled intermedi. By the early 1600s composers began to experiment with writing musical drama, which came to be known as opera.
So, where did recorders fit into this new musical world? They continued to be used in chamber music, although to a much lesser extent than they were in the previous century. Members of the violin family were the predominant instruments. There were still works performed by recorder consorts, although many of these works included a basso continuo. Recorders were also used in broken consorts, although the transverse flute was favored. Later in the century alto recorders were used as solo instruments, being accompanied by a basso continuo. Recorders were also used upon occasion in larger ensembles. In dramatic music they were commonly used to accompany pastoral scenes, as well as supernatural happenings. Lastly, they were still a popular instrument of the amateur musician.
It is in the seventeenth century that we find the first works designated for recorder. These include a sonatella for five recorders and organ by Antonio Bertali (1605-1669), kapellmeister at the Viennese court, a sonata for seven recorders by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (1623-1680), a Viennese violin virtuoso, a sonata for three recorders and basso continuo found in a manuscript in Breslau, and Der Fluyten Lust-Hof by Johan van Eyck (c. 1590-1657), musician and director of the carrilon at Utrecht. Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704), a pupil of Schmelzer, wrote the sonata pro tabula for five recorders, five string instruments, and basso continuo. Even though there are works that were designated for recorder, orchestration at this time was not set in stone. Johann Hermann Schein (1586-1630) states that a recorder can perform the second soprano part in his Waldliederlein. There was also a substantial amount of instrumental music that was composed which was intended to be played on one of a variety of instruments. Many of these works are suitable for recorders.
The recorder was particularly popular in England. In the middle of the seventeenth century the recorder was used in both chamber music and plays. John Banister (c. 1625-1681) wrote numerous duets for recorder. Some of these were published by John Hudgebut in his Thesaurus Musicus. Others were featured in Banister's The Most Pleasant Companion; or, Choice New Lessons for the Recorder or Flute. Henry Purcell (1659-1695) used recorders in many of his dramatic works such as Dioclesian, The Fairy Queen, Theodosius, and Bonduca. However, he only wrote a single chamber work for the instruments, a chaconne for three treble recorders. John Blow (1649-1708) also made use of recorders in his masques as well as in the Ode on the Death of Henry Purcell. Daniel Purcell (1660-1717), brother of Henry, wrote several sonatas for treble recorder and continuo. These were published by Walsh along with sonatas for treble recorder and continuo by Godfrey Finger (c. 1660-1730.) William Croft (1678-1727) also wrote sonatas for treble recorder and continuo. James Paisible (d. 1721) an accomplished recorder player and wrote six duets two treble recorders. Johann Christoph Pepusch (1667-1752) wrote two sets of six sonatas for recorder and continuo, as well as trio sonatas for recorder.
The transverse flute is also known as the German flute. Thus, it is not surprising that the recorder was not as popular in Germany as it was in England. However, the recorder was still used in all aspects of German music in the middle of the seventeenth century. The recorder was used in stage works such as Sigmund Theophil Staden's (1607-1655) "Seelewig." Johann Christoph Pez (1664-1716) wrote numerous works for recorder. These included a concerto pastorale for two treble recorders, strings, and continuo, suites for recorder and strings, and trio sonatas.
There are few works for recorders by French composers of the seventeenth century. Major composers such as Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), Marc-Antoine Charpentier (c.1645-1704), Francois Couperin (circa 1668-1733) rarely wrote for recorder. Two of Chapentier's works that use recorders are Usquequo Domine and Les plaisirs de Versailles. Marin Marais (1656-1728) wrote pieces en trio pour les flutes, violon, et dessus de viole.
The violin was the predominant instrument in Italy during the seventeenth century. Many composers, such as Corelli, were violinists. Very few works were written for recorders by Italians of this period. Two of the best known of these works are a concerto for recorder two violins and continuo, and a sonata for three treble recorders and continuo which were both composed by Alessandro Scarlatti (1659-1725)
During the first half of the eighteenth century there was a resurgence in composition for the recorder. We are fortunate that during this period many of the great Baroque composers wrote music for it. Unfortunately, by the second half of the century the recorder was all but forgotten, and would remain in that state until the early twentieth century.
In Italy the resurgence in music for recorder is seen in the works of Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) He wrote several works for recorder including a solo sonata with continuo in F, a trio sonata in a for recorder, basoon, and continuo, several chamber concerti, and a concerto in f and one in c. Several other Italian composers from this period wrote sonatas for recorder. These included Benedetto Marcello (1686-1739), Francesco Barsanti (1690-1772), Giovanni Battista Sammartini (c.1700-1775)
Many German composers from the early eighteenth century wrote works for recorder. Given his enormous output it is not surprising to find that Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) wrote music for the instrument. Several of his solo sonatas and trio sonatas survive, and are at the core of the recorder literature. Johann Mattheson (1681-1764), who is famous for his duel with Handel, wrote twelve duets and trios for treble recorders. Johann Christian Schickhardt (c.1682-1762) wrote numerous sonatas for one and two recorders and continuo, and concerti for four treble recorders and continuo. Johann David Heinichen (1683-1729) wrote a concerto for treble recorder, three ripieni treble recorders, strings, and continuo. He also wrote a concerto for recorder, two violins, and continuo. Christoph Graupner (c.1683-1760) wrote a concerto for recorder. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) used recorders in the Brandenberg concerti II and IV and several of his cantatas. Although he did not write any recorder sonatas, several of Bach's sonatas for flute have been transcribed for recorder. After Bach, few composers wrote for the instrument. One of them was Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788) who wrote a trio for bass recorder, viola, and continuo.
Many foreign musicians made England their home. The most famous of these is Georg Fredric Handel (1685-1759). His sonatas for recorder and continuo are some of the most famous works for the instrument. Another musician of German extraction John Ernest Galliard (c.1687-1749) He was a noted oboist and wrote six sonatas for recorder and continuo. Two French musicians that immigrated to England in the early eighteenth century were Jean Baptiste L'oeillet (1680-1730) and Louis Merci (c. 1695-1750) Merci, who took on the name Louis Mercy, played the recorder and wrote several solos and sonatas with continuo. L'oeillet who became known as John Loeillet, was a flute virtuoso, but still wrote several solo and trio sonatas for recorder. England also had its fair share of native sons who wrote for recorder. Robert Valentine (1680-1735), who also worked in Italy, wrote 12 sonatas for recorder and continuo, and six sonatas for two recorders. Several Englishmen wrote concerti for the sixth flute. Robert Woodcock (c.1680-1734) wrote three concerti for sixth flute, and three concerti for two sixth flutes. John Baston (fl. 1711-33) and William Babell (c.1690-1723) each wrote a concerto for sixth flute.
Although the transverse flute had supplanted the recorder in professional circles in France, amateur musicians still played the recorder. Thus composers such as Joseph Bodin de Boismortier (1689-1755), Jaques Aubert (1689-1753), Jacques-Christophe Naudot (c.1690-1762), Esprit Philippe Chedeville (1696-1762), and Nicolas Chedeville (1705-1782) wrote duets for recorders. In addition to this literature, which is somewhat simplistic, there are works for the transverse flute that can be played on recorder. Such works include the suites for two flutes by Michel de La Barre (c.1675-1743), the sonatas for flute and continuo by Jacques-Christophe Naudot, and the six trio sonatas by Jacques Hotteterre le Romain (c. 1680-1760).
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