Instruments resembling recorders are know from at least the 1300s – these are a family known as fipple flutes, from the block or fipple used to close off the upper end and create the narrow windway. It is not clear exactly when the recorder emerged as a distinct instrument, but probably in the mid 1500s.
Its main distinguishing feature is the thumb-hole on the back of the instrument – many fipple flutes had no such hole and depended on the player ‘blowing up’ in order to get the upper octave. Also, the bore of the recorder tapers from the top to the bottom, rather than the reverse as with other wind instruments.
The Renaissance recorder seems to have been established by the mid 1500s. There are various records of recorders, though few early instruments survive. Henry VIII was in his early days something of a musician, and he possessed quite a number of recorders.
Various sizes were in existence, but designs and pitches seem to have varied, different pitches being used by different makers, or in different places. Sometimes recorders were pitched so they could play with the local organ. Sets or consorts were produced, voiced and pitched so that they could be played together.
Recorders were apparently commonly used in local bands, probably alongside transverse flutes, during the 1400s and 1500s.
The Baroque Era
In the mid 1700s a family of musicians and instrument makers in France (La Couture-Boussey, about 100Kms west of Paris), the Hotteterres, made various advances in instrument design and manufacture which contributed to rapid development of the recorder. In particular the joint we now know, so that construction in sections simplified boring, and allowed the use of shorter boring tools and greater accuracy. Thus emerged what we now call the Baroque Recorder.
Many works for these new recorders were composed by French composers (members of the Hotteterre family, Chédevilles, Naudot, Baton, Aubert, Boismortier, Marin Marais) and after the restitution of the British monarchy in 1660, these instruments and their music became known here, as well as elsewhere in Europe. Many works for recorder (solo sonatas, trio sonatas and works for several recorders, as well as works using recorders with other instruments and in plays, cantatas and the like) were composed by Purcell, Blow, Jeremiah Clarke, Godfrey Finger, James Paisible, the Loeillets, Pepusch, Handel, Bach, Telemann and Vivaldi).
Bach used solo recorders in his Brandenburg Concerti numbers 2 and 4, and in an arrangment of number 5 in F as well as widely in his cantatas, notably Schäffe können sicher weiden, and even in one recitativ and aria in the St Matthew Passion.
Pastoral scenes, love scenes or spiritual moments often prompted the use of the recorder in Baroque music. In such circumstances, recorder specialists were normally not used, instead the oboists in the orchestra were expected to play the recorder parts for a movement or aria. Though whether this would have been the case in the Brandenburg Concerti I wonder, such is their complexity!
However, even as the recorder was enjoying its hay day, developments in the design and construction of the transverse flute were taking place which would quickly lead to its dominance and the disappearance of the recorder. The new transverse flute was louder, with a greater range of notes and dynamic range – the pitch of a note on the recorder is affected greatly by the breath pressure, so blow harder, get a louder but sharper note, blow more gently, get a softer but flatter note. Systems of keys, together with control of the air flow by the player’s lips made the flute preferable over the soft inflexible recorder. The move towards bigger orchestras required a more penetrating tone than the recorder could produce.
Although the recorder still existed and was played in the second half of the 1700s and through the 1800s, this was not on a large scale, and despite many experiments and innovations, it was not able to challenge the transverse flute.
Renewal of Interest
It was not until the development of an interest of early music near the end of the 1800s, and into the 1900s, that the recorder began to re-emerge clearly onto the musical scene. There was also an intereset in the original instruments on which it had been played.
Copies of original instruments were made, and more modern designs were tried. New music began to be written for the recorder, as well as the publishing of older music for recorder. Particularly involved with this were the Dolmetsch family, Walter Bergmann and Edgar Hunt.
The current standardisation of pitch and fingerings developed out of this: recorders are now mostly at standard orchestral pitch (a=440Hz) and with two fingerings (C & F). Some early music enthusiasts still use recorders at a=415Hz, and I recently heard of one at a=432Hz.
Recorders began to be used in schools, though being made of wood, were relatively expensive.
After the Second World War, with the development of plastics, it was easy and cheap to produce moulded descant recorders, which became the introduction of many schoolchildren to music. Regrettably this also gave the instrument a bad reputation as a result of much unskilled over-blowing.
The surge in interest in early music from the 1970s has given the recorder a further boost, and a wide variety of instruments are now available whose prices vary from cheap to stellar! Plastic recorders are reasonably cheap, play well and in tune, but do not such good tone as wooden ones, which are very much more expensive.
A wide range of experiments have been carried out with the windway, finger-holes and system of keys. There was even a brief foray into electronic/acoustic recorders. The restrictions imposed by the fixed windway were tackled by one which was adjustable by pressure from the lower lip.
One solution to the problem of moisture in the narrow windway was an absorbent ceramic lining, but this “eroded in response to the ghastly cocktail of food and alcohol present on the average recorder player’s breath, necessitating expensive repairs”.
None of these experiments have caught on – the majority of players still favour the simplicity of the basic instrument.
And this seems to be the lure of the recorder, simple, cheap, easy to make a start with, and a simple unaffected sound.