Tuesday, September 1, 2009
The recorder is a kind of duct flute (a wind instrument with a built-in windway). Duct flutes are relatively simple instruments to make and play, and examples can be found depicted in European art from the 11th century. These were often made from a single piece of bone or wood, and most have between three and five fingerholes. The earliest surviving examples of recorders date from the 14th century, and again, the number of fingerholes vary. By the late 15th century, the recorder had six finger holes and a thumbhole. Extra holes were gradually added: in Renaissance France, the instrument was called flute a neuf trous (‘flute with nine holes’). The term ‘recorder’ is English.
By the Renaissance the recorder was often played in consorts of various sizes rather than as a solo instrument and was popular in court circles. A quartet of recorder players dressed as wolves performed at the marriage of Charles the Bold to Margaret of York in 1468, and Henry VIII of England was an avid collector of sets of recorders (he owned many cased sets of 4-9 instruments). The fifteenth-century Flemish painting Mary Queen of Heaven shows three angels playing soprano, alto and tenor recorders. Polyphonic vocal music of this period was frequently adapted for recorder consort.
The instrument was popular with amateur groups throughout the 16th and 17th centuries (Samuel Pepys resolved to learn the recorder, “the sound of it being, of all sounds in the world, most pleasing to me”). In the 18th century, the recorder was an established part of the orchestra and was scored for by Bach and Handel. Yet at this time, it was supplanted by the transverse flute which has better dynamic range and pitch control, and the recorder largely vanished from use.
It was revived in the early twentieth century by early music pioneer Arnold Dolmetsch who made his own recorders in order to play authentic period music. The instrument underwent many improvements, and mass production of plastic recorders enabled it to be widely adopted as a teaching instrument in schools throughout the Western world. Modern masters of the recorder have included Franz Bruggen, David Munrow, Michaela Petrie, Marion Verbruggen and Genevieve Lacey.