Instruments | Recorder | Woodwind

The first known examples of the recorder date from the Middle Ages. It became hugely popular in the Renaissance and Baroque periods and then, surpassed by the concert flute, it largely fell out of use in the professional arena.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, however, it was redesigned by Arnold Dolmetsch and subsequently enjoyed a remarkable revival, which continues today.

Playing and Pitch

All recorders are end-blown duct flutes. The main body of the instrument contains a column of air, open at the bottom. The head joint of the instrument is partially blocked, leading the player’s breath to a sharp edge, which splits the air in two, to induce sound vibrations. One part continues into the instrument’s air column, agitating it into vibrating; the other part is forced out through a window in the head joint and away from the instrument.

Like all aerophones, the recorder’s pitch is dependent on the length of the air column. In order to alter the pitch, finger holes can be covered (to create a longer air column and lower pitch) or uncovered (to create a shorter air column and a lower pitch). By increasing the breath velocity, a player can make a fingering sound an octave higher (overblowing).

Early Recorder Music

By the sixteenth century, the recorder was one of the most popular instruments in Europe. It was used in instrumental and vocal music by Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643), Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–87), Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1645–1704), Henry Purcell (1659–95), George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) and Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750). Perhaps more significant, though, was its use among amateurs.

The ease with which the recorder could be played made it a perfect instrument for household use. In times where there was no recording and no broadcasting, it was a good medium through which to disseminate new music. Transcriptions of songs, arias and even whole operas were made well into the nineteenth century.

The Modern Recorder

The revival of professional interest in the recorder began in the early-twentieth century when Arnold Dolmetsch (1858–1940) created a new design in the 1920s. Together with his son Carl, Dolmetsch altered the instrument’s bore, redesigned the finger holes and rescaled the size and positioning of the finger holes for modern pitch and equal temperament. Much of the renewed popularity of the recorder is due to the surge in demand for historically informed performance, in which performances take place on exact replicas of instruments used in the time that the music was written.

The modern recorder has a range of just over two octaves. This means that instruments of different sizes must be used to access the full pitch compass, particularly in an ensemble. Recorders are most often tuned in C or F (referring to their lowest pitch, available when all the finger holes are covered). The standard instrument is a descant, with a lowest note of c'. Above that is the sopranino, with a lowest note of f'. Below the descant are the alto, lowest note...

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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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