History of the Recorder

Recorder Solo
"Bird Song"

The recorder is the most highly developed member of the ancient family of internal duct flutes, flutes with a fixed windway formed by a wooden plug or block. It is distinguished from other internal duct flutes by having holes for seven fingers and a single hole for the thumb which also serves as an octaving vent.
The oldest surviving more or less complete instrument, the so-called Dordrecht Recorder dates from as early as the mid-thirteenth century. This "medieval" recorder is most obviously characterised by its narrow, cylindrical bore (the internal tube passing down the middle of the instrument, which is largely responsible for the instrument's tuning and response).
A second more or less complete medieval recorder dating from the 14th century has been reported from Göttingen (northern Germany) where it was found in a latrine in Weender Straßer 26 in 1987. This so-called Göttingen Recorder is part of the collection at the Stadtarchäologie Göttingen and has been described by Hakelberg (1995), Homo-Lechner (1996) and Reiners (1997). It is made in two parts and has vents for seven fingers and a thumbhole, the lowest vent doubled. It is 256 mm long and is also made of fruitwood (a species of Prunus). Its beak is damaged, which probably explains why it was discarded. There are narrowings of the bore between the first and second finger holes, and between the second and third finger holes, as well as a very marked contraction close behind the seventh hole. The bore expands to 14.5 mm at the bottom of the instrument which has a distinctive bulbous foot.
Reconstructions of medieval recorders produce a tone which is sweet and keen. In general, they have a smallish range which diminishes as such instruments increase in size, ranging from about a twelfth for a sopranino to about a ninth for an alto. Some makers have managed to extend the range of cylindrical-bore recorders to two or more octaves. Such recorders sound best with other soft instruments of the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries: the psaltery, rebec, vielle, lute and voice.
During the fifteenth century instrument makers began producing choirs (or consorts) of recorders and other instruments in many sizes. The recorder developed at this time is referred to as the "renaissance" recorder which reached its zenith in the mid-sixteenth century. Renaissance recorders are known from a great many surviving examples. Their bores are conical, tapering gently towards the foot. These recorders have a range limited to about an octave and a sixth with a bold, rich timbre which is even in quality and dynamic level throughout their range. They are ideally suited to the performance of the polyphonic vocal and instrumental music of the fifteenth to early seventeenth centuries, blending readily and in balance with each other in whole consorts or contrasting on equal terms with other renaissance instruments or voices
During the late seventeenth century the recorder was completely redesigned for use as a solo instrument. Where previously it had been made in one or two pieces it was now made in three allowing for more accurate boring. It was given a more pronounced taper than ever before and had a fully chromatic range of two octaves and ultimately two octaves and a fifth. It was voiced to produce an intense, reedy and penetrating tone of great carrying power and expressivity. Many splendid original examples of such instruments survive today in playing condition. These baroque recorders are admirably suited to the performance of chamber music and even concerti. In this form the recorder survived as a professional instrument late into the eighteenth century and as an amateur instrument some way into the nineteenth century until it was temporarily and briefly eclipsed by the flute.
The revival of the recorder as such had its beginnings towards the end of the nineteenth century when large museum collections of antique musical instruments were assembled and a growing interest in pre-classical music helped produce a climate in which the recorder could again flourish. In 1885 a group from the Brussels Conservatoire played flauti dolci in a Sinfonia Pastorale from Jacopo Peri's Eurydice performed at the International Inventions Exhibition held in the Albert Hall galleries in South Kensington, London, in conjunction with a display of musical instruments, some brought by Victor-Charles Mahillon from The Brussels Conservatoire (Musical Times 1885). And in Britain during the 1890's and early 1900s, the research and lectures of Canon Francis Galpin, Dr Joseph Cox Bridge and Christopher Welch drew further attention to the recorder in musical circles, though nothing was known about its technique or repertoire. In particular, Galpin organized concerts and rustic fêtes using recorders as well as cornets, serpents lutes and other instruments from his own collection (Godman 1959).
In the USA there was nothing to compare with Germany's Youth Movement in sparking an interest in folk music and archaic instruments. The Niagara Falls High School Recorder Quartet was establshed in 1932 (Cornstock 1992). Carl Dolmetsch's annual concert tours (begun in 1936), performance by ensembles like the Trapp Family Singers, and the work of craftsmen such as David Dushkin, William Koch and Friedrich von Huene laid the groundwork for a popular recorder movement. In passing, it is interesting to note that amongst the early presidents of The American Recorder Society (founded in 1939) was Erich Katz, Wilibald Gurlitt's former assistant in Freiburg (Haskell 1996). As a conductor, instrumentalist, teacher and composer Paul Hindemith (himself a recorder player) wore several hats in the early music revival, directing the Yale University Collegium Musicum from 1940 to 1953 which included recorder players amongst its members
Nowadays, designers of factory-made instruments for amateur and school use continue to produce recorders with a somewhat more bland, flute-like tone than the eighteenth-century originals on which they are based. Nonetheless, these neo-baroque recorders remain essentially solo instruments and are inherently unsuited to being played together in consorts. As we shall see, such instruments demand a very sophisticated technique indeed if tone and tuning are to be acceptable to any but uncritical listeners. Played together by children or adult amateurs they generally sound harsh and discordant. The style of recorder most appropriate for use by children and amateurs is surely the renaissance instrument designed specifically for blending with each other. Although reconstructions of such recorders are available (see below), their cost puts them well out of the reach of all but specialist players.
A patent for a fully keyed recorder was taken out in 1988 by the saxophonist Arnfred Strathmann, of Memsdorf. Strathmann's recorder featured the elaborate keywork and fingerings of a saxophone. With the assistance of the Klein company Kiel, a series of Strathmann flutes was developed with many modern features. The body is made of wood or durable plastic, the block height is adjustable with a simple thumbscrew, and the thumbhole is replaced by a key which opens two small holes high up in the head piece which raises any fingering of the lower register to the octave above (see side view). The volume of sound for all notes is stronger than on conventional recorders, and the timbre is said to be between that of a recorder and flute. Strathmann flutes have been made in both soprano and alto models (Huene 1994). Now the Klein company has collapsed, Strathmann continues to make these instruments alone, in small quantities.
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