Instruments | Recorder | Renaissance | Classical
The Renaissance recorder was played by blowing directly into a beak-shaped mouthpiece and the pitch was varied by changing the fingering on the holes – a set of seven on the front of the instrument and a single thumb-hole at the back.
During this period the instrument was generally made of a single piece of wood, but today it usually has three jointed sections: a head containing the mouthpiece; a middle section with six of the fingerholes; and a foot joint which has the seventh hole. The bore of the Renaissance recorder was almost cylindrical. As the instrument developed during the Baroque era it narrowed and became more conical in shape, making it sound less reedy, sweeter and fuller.
The Renaissance recorder had a working range of about an octave and a sixth, achieved by varying the blowing as well as changing the fingering. (Baroque players seem to have expected to cover about two octaves.) Sylvestro di dal Fonrego Ganassi (1492–mid-sixteenth century), in his treatise Fontegara (1535), suggested that the compass of the recorder could be extended to two octaves and a sixth by means of special fingering. In fact, most of the Renaissance repertory of dance music played by recorders only required the less ambitious range.
A Consort Instrument
Recorders came in different sizes, giving them different ranges and sound qualities. Today, they are normally referred to (from high to low) as descant or soprano, treble or alto, tenor and bass recorders. There are also more rarely great bass and double bass instruments and, at the top end, sopraninos.
The Renaissance recorder was a consort instrument, to be played in groups, with each member playing a different part. Praetorius’s Syntagma musicum depicts a consort of recorders, from the massive 2.5 m (8 ft 3 in) great bass to the tiny garklein, which played an octave above the descant. Henry VIII is on record as having owned 76 recorders, though none is known to have survived.
The recorder failed to maintain its position in the developing orchestra and by the end of the eighteenth century it had been usurped by the flute. After almost total invisibility in the nineteenth century, it made a surprise comeback in the hands of Arnold Dolmetsch (1858–1940), who both made and played it. He promoted a Renaissance repertory and led the way for a full-scale resurgence of the recorder as the most widely used chromatic teaching instrument and as a tool in the hands of avant-garde composers.
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