Troubadours from the south of France and trouvères from the north, were itinerant poet-musicians, playing by ear. They would often be assisted by Jongleurs who sang, told stories and juggled. The most common instrument for these travelling entertainers seems to have been the vielle, but the recorder, or recorder-like instruments are seen in illustrations of the time. Some medieval dance music was written down, and estampies, a principal dance form, in particular suit the recorder well.

If we exclude the organ, which seems to have its own literature as early as the 14th century, it is not until the early 15th century that we find texts with precise instrumentation. In the course of a feast in Lille in 1454, held by Duke Philip the Good, the music included four flutes (recorders) and for the wedding of Charles the Bold and Margaret of York in Bruges in 1468, a song was played by ‘four wolves holding flutes in their paws.’ In the second half of the 15th century, ensembles for families of instrument, shawms, viols, recorders for example were established as distinct from the ‘broken consort’, an ensemble for varied instruments.

The first printed tutor book for the recorder Opera Intitulata Fontegara by Sylvestro Ganassi was published in Venice in 1535. Ganassi insists that the recorder player must imitate singing and instructs the player to determine the expressive quality of the particular piece of music and to project that quality in his playing. A variety of articulation syllables are provided as the ‘words’. As with other tutor books for instruments published at this time, Fontegara not only gives instructions on technique but also on the equally important matter of ornamentation.

Henry VIII owned 76 or 77 recorders of various sizes according to a list made shortly after his death in 1547, many of them in matched ‘chests’ or sets.

Out of 507 wind instruments listed as belongling to the Stuttgart Town Band in 1589, 299 were recorders.

The 1580s and 90s see the development of a new style of composition known as basso continuo. This new music of the Baroque age abandoned the equality of parts and the bass and treble provided the main structure of the music, which the intervening parts enhanced.

After centuries of music generally being either sung or played by whatever was available, the first composer to specify the recorder in a composition was Giovanni Battista Riccio (late 16th century – after 1621) in his Canzone for two flautino. In Harmonie Universelle (1636/7) Marin Mersenne suggests recorders should be used in two consorts, treble, 2 tenors and bass and, an octave lower, bass, 2 great basses and contrabass, a line-up very familiar to recorder players today. Mersenne includes an example of recorder music, a Gavotte pour les Flustes douce. Les Flustes douce are recorders, distinct from les Flustes d’Allemand (what we now call a flute) and les Flageollets.

Antonio Bertali (1605-1669) wrote a Sonatella a 5 Flauti et Organo I and Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (1623-1680) wrote Sonata a 7 Flauti. Heinrich Franz Biber (1644-1704) wrote a Sonata pro Tabula a 10 for 5 recorders, 5 strings and continuo.

In 1644, Der Flutyren Lust-Hof by Jacob van Eyck (c.1590-1657) was published in Amsterdam and editions of this work appeared in 1646,1649, 1654 and 1656. This collection of about 140 pieces, melodies with variations for solo descant recorder, sold all over Europe and remains the largest work for a solo wind instrument in European history.

In 1673 the latest wind instruments, the newly modelled oboe and recorder developed by the Hotteterre family, made their way over from France to England. Four French oboists, or ‘hautboys’ as they were often called, came with the composer Cambert and were quickly established at court and caused a sensation at the London theatres. Their new recorder design has remained vitually unchanged since.

By the 1690s, the recorder was played by amateurs and professionals, Handel, Bach and Telemann included it in orchestral works and chamber music. It was seen on the stage and in the pit in the theatres in London, tutor books were published regularly, many by Walsh of London, and recorder makers like Stanesby and his son were kept busy. This happy state of affairs lasted some 30 to 40 years in England. Although the flute took over in professional circles, the recorder was still played by amateurs throughout the 18th century. See The Recorder and Its Music, Chapter 4, by Edgar Hunt, pub. Eulenburg

Renewal of Interest

In 1898 Christopher Welch introduced the recorder to the members of the Musical Association with his paper ‘Literature relating to the Recorder’. His second paper was on ‘Hamlet and the Recorder’ in 1902. Meanwhile Arnold Dolmetsch had been researching music for viols, harpsichords and other early instruments. In 1903 he aquired an eighteenth century treble recorder by Bressan, the loss of which caused the making of the first 20th century recorder.

In 1925, Arnold Dolmetsch founded an annual chamber music festival of early music in Haslemere in Surrey which was to run for some 70 years. In 1920s Germany, Mssrs. G.H. Hüller made some recorders for Peter Haarlan and Emil Brauer. In 1929 Brauer and F.J.Giesbert formed Die Sackpfeife, a society for both amateurs and professionals for the playing of early music on the instruments for which it was written.

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 early music for recorder.

In the 1930s, musician and musicologist Edgar Hunt began teaching the recorder in schools, using imported German instruments.

In October 1937, The Society of Recorder Players was founded.

The good account of this period is to be found in Edgar Hunt’s book The Recorder and Its Music.

The first Dolmetsch plastic recorders rolled off the production line in 1946. They shared the same dimensions as the wooden instruments, so the intonation and tone quality was of a good standard and because of their affordability, these plastic recorders were soon introduced into schools, where they revolutionised musical education for generations of children.

In 1948 the recorder was adopted by Japan’s Ministry of Education’s new school music curriculum and Japanese makers began to manufacture plastic instruments.

By the 1950s and 60s, ‘recorder’ had become a household word.

Carl Dolmetsch, Kees Otten, Frans Brüggen, and Hans-Martin Linde were all part of the 1960s resurgance of the recorder and David Munrow, who formed the Early Music Consort with Christopher Hogwood, gave a new lease of life to the Early Music revival in the 1970s.

The Australian recorder maker Fred Morgan (1940-99) profoundly influenced the development of the early music movement and the quality of recorder making. His instruments feature on hundreds of recordings by the world’s best players. See Recorders Based on Historical Models: Fred Morgan – Writings and Memories 2007 by Gisela Rothe & Markus Berdux pub. Mollenhauer

Notable events in recent recorder history

1930 Robin Milford writes an interlude for recorder and harpsichord into his oratorio A Prophet in the Land, first performed at the Three Choirs Festival
  Paul Hindemith writes The Plöner Musiktag for recorder trio
1937 The Society of Recorder Players formed
  The School Recorder Book, by Priestley and Fowler, published
1939 American Recorder Society founded
  First performance of the Lennox Berkeley Sonatina by Carl Dolmetsch at the London Contemporary Music Society
1940 Schott make a descant recorder with cellulose acetate, later changed to bakelite
1946 Dolmetsch produce their first plastic recorders
1956 Carl Dolmetsch and Stanley Taylor play in a performance of Bach’s Brandenburg IV at a BBC Prom concert
1958 Benjamin Britten uses recorders in Noye’s Fludde
  Gordon Jacob’s Suite for recorder and string quartet first performed
1960 Benjamin Britten uses sopranino recorders in his opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream
1966 Luciano Berio writes Gesti for Frans Bruggen
  Klaus Hashagen writes Gesten for recorder and tape
  Jacques Bank writes Blind Boy Fuller no.1 for treble recorder, piano, voice and tape
  The Rolling Stones record Ruby Tuesday with Brian Jones playing a Schott wooden treble recorder and it becomes a number-one hit in the US in 1967
  RARA, written by Sylvano Bussotti, a graphic score with introduction and realisation by Michael Vetter
1967 The Beatles record The Fool on the Hill with Paul McCartney playing descant recorder
1968 Hans-Martin Linde writes Music for a Bird for a Japanese mime artist in a play
  Fragmente for tenor recorder written by Makoto Shinohara
1969 Peter Schat writes Hypothema for Frans Bruggern. combing ‘old music’ (a set of van Eyck variations for descant recorder) pre-recorded on tape, and ‘new music’ played live on a tenor recorder.
1971 Frans Bruggen, Walter van Hawe and Kees Boeke form Sour Cream, focussing on the avant-garde
  Led Zeppelin use a recorder quartet in Stairway to Heaven
1972 Periferosch-Diagonaal-Concentrisch, a minimalist work, written for recorder quartet by Belgian composer Frans Geysen
1978 Students from the Sweelinck Conservatory form The Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet which performed around the world for some thirty years.
1979 One-hour television programme documenting the rehearsals and showing the first performance of Alan Ridout’s Concerto for recorder, strings and percussion, with Evelyn Nallen and the Bournemouth Sinfonietta.
1995 The French recorder maker Phillippe Bolton patents a system for puting pick-up mics inside recorder head joints.
  Adiemus, a ‘new age’ music project by Karl Jenkins includes a solo recorder in Songs of Sanctuary , then Dances of Time (1998) and The Eternal Knot (2001)


The 21st century:

Experimentation continues with performers like Michael Barker, Susanna Borsch, and Julien Feltrin working particularly with electronics.  For example, in 2012 Susanna Borsch performed Ned McGowan’s iPad Concerto with the Rotterdam Sinfonia. 

The recorder on CD and on stage can be heard in many guises: for example the folk music band Spark, the pop group the Rolling Stones, the prog rock band Gryphon, in soft jazz with the Spinnaker Band, and early music/jazz Respectable Groove.  

Jazz influence: David Gordon and Pete Rose both compose works for the recorder that are heavily influenced by their jazz backgrounds. David Gordon’s Romanesque, a chamber concerto for recorder, was given its first performance by Charlotte Barbour-Condini in 2015.

Michala Petri continues to commission and record new works since she signed her first exclusive contract with Philips in 1979. In 2010 she recorded 4 Chinese Concertos with the Copenhagen Philharmonic conducted by Lan Shui.

Genevieve Lacey, who is based in Melbourne, Australia, has created a signigficant body of large-scale collaborative works as well as commissioning and recording scores of new works for the recorder.

Some other professional players: Aldo Abreu, Piers Adams, Giovanni Antonini, Stefano Bagliano, David Bellugi, Vicki Boeckman, Andreas Bohlen, Erik Bosgraaf, Julie Braná, Lorenzo Cavasanti, Kara Cieki, Priska Comploi, Clara Cowley, Koen Dieltiens, Anna Fusek, Cléa Galhano, Jostein Gundersen, Jan Kvapil, Dan Laurin, Sebastian Marq, Matthias Maute, Paul Nauta, Dorothee Oberlinger, Hanneke van Proosdij, Manuel Staropoli, Maurice Steger, Aik Shin Tan, Pricilla Smith, Pamela Thorby, John Tyson, Kirstin de Witt

Professional recorder consorts

Formed in the 1987, the Flanders Recorder Quartet won the 1990 Musica Antiqua Bruges in 1990 which started their extensive concert career.

The Flautadors, B-Five Recorder Consort, the Brisk Recorder Consort, and the Sirena Recorder Quartet are just some of the professional consorts working today. Those working in the UK are listed on the Performers page

Recorder Orchestras

Over the last 20 years a substantial body of music has been written or arranged for the recorder orchestra. There are more than twenty in the UK but there are recorder orchestras in Germany, the USA, Australia, and the Far East

The next generation

In 2012, Charlotte Barbour-Condini, days after her 16th birthday, was the first recorder player ever to reach the concerto final of the BBC Young Musician Competition in over 30 years of the programme’s history.

In 2014, Sophie Westbrooke, aged 15, reached the following BBC YMC concerto final. Both Charlotte and Sophie are pupils of Barbara Law at the Junior Department of the Royal Academy of Music in London.

The recorder is alive and well!

Last updated 30 August 2022