Taking the Recorder Seriously

The recorder is often regarded as little more than a kid’s toy with a piercing sound and little serious musical value. Even many who know that there is more to the recorder than Twinkle Twinkle Little Star — that is to say, those who are aware that the recorder had an important role in Renaissance and Baroque music — still seem to regard it as a less serious instrument, or something of a novelty. I certainly know this was my bias, especially thinking back to the squawks one made in primary school recorder clubs. But the history and repertoire is much richer than one generally imagines.

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Some basics: recorders come in various types, the main ones being, from high to low, sopranino, descant (or soprano), treble (or alto), tenor, bass and contrabass. The descant is the one everyone learns Three Blind Mice on. The treble recorder is what most of the classical repertoire was written for. The tenor is a bit more obscure, and very few extant works exist for the bass recorder from the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

The recorder is played by covering the holes with your fingers and blowing into the mouthpiece. (The tenor sometimes has keys to compensate for the longer length, and the bass always does). This distinguishes it from the flute which is played held sideways. For a long while in the 17th and 18th century the term ‘flute’ in fact referred to recorders and the modern ordinary flute was referred to as a ‘transverse’ flute. Other languages had similarly confusing distinctions.

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A comparison between the penny whistle (fig. 1), very similar in its construction to the recorder, and an organ pipe (fig. 2). Of course this comparison only applies for pipe organs; reed organs are somewhat different. From John Stainer’s Complete Organ Method.

To give some perspective, it’s worth noting that the mechanism of the recorder is actually surprisingly similar to the organ. We know that going back to ancient times there were people who realised the simple fact that two recorders could be played simultaneously by one man (and no, not through one’s nostrils), and the organ basically mechanises and expands this idea. But instead of blowing into the recorders, air is pushed through by bellows. Early organs therefore required great stamina by the poor men tasked to operate the bellows. English organist John Stainer, writing in the late nineteenth century, remarked that ‘those who have any curiosity on the subject will still find in many continental churches, in some dark corner, a man busily engaged in mounting on first one and then another of several sets of feeders [the bottom bit of the bellows], and forcing the air into the bellows by his weight, as if he were under-going punishment at a musical treadmill.’ But even this is later on in the development of the organ. Before this the organ didn’t even have any keys. (Indeed, early keys were stiff things, hence the nickname at the time, ‘organ beater’, or pulsator organorum.) The pipes in this very early organ pictured below, essentially recorders without holes, are operated by pulling back the pieces of wood where the keyboard would nowadays be. This would either close or open up the foot of the pipe controlling the flow of air from the bellows behind.

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The recorder itself came to prominence later on, in the sixteenth century, though duct flutes have existed since ancient times. The Renaissance recorder is similar to the modern recorder, but somewhat simpler in design. Renaissance recorders have fingerholes of all the same size, while the Baroque recorder, the design maintained today, has varying fingerhole sizes to facilitate higher notes. Renaissance recorders are also fairly straight and column-like, while Baroque recorders taper down towards the end. This means that Renaissance recorders are generally louder, more limited in range, and warmer sounding, whereas Baroque recorders are quieter but really pierce through when playing mid-high notes, while the lower notes are much harder to play. Naturally, the Baroque repertoire is on the whole much more challenging.

After the Baroque period the recorder seemed to face extinction. It was revived with a concert in England in the late 19th century, but the extent to which the instrument had been forgotten is evidenced by the fact that the player at this concert blocked up the thumb hole — he thought it had been put there by mistake! The mid-twentieth century saw its proper revival with recorder players like Michala Petri giving it its deserved respectability, and modern composers from Britten to Arnold to Part writing serious music for the instrument for the first time in about two centuries. (Of course it was also revived in the classroom, a mixed blessing.) Here’s Paul Hindemith’s ‘Plöner musiktag’ for one descant recorder and two treble recorders:

Still, the quality and quantity of modern recorder music is lacking, especially in proportion to the obvious number off enthusiastic and competent amateur players. There are often wonderful arrangements made of older music, though generally still Baroque or Renaissance — see the Flander’s Recorder Quartet, for example — or composers rearranging their own music for recorder, but seldom very remarkable original compositions. Usually it’s what you can expect from modernist music: lots of instrument-defying extended techniques, all very colourful, but little music.

Indeed, the recorder is capable of quite a few stranger techniques, given that it’s an instrument capable of microtonality (there are often two or more ways to play the same note, each sharper or flatter than the others, and the pitch can be altered also by how hard or soft one blows — or indeed by lifting your knee up to block the bottom hole, an endlessly amusing technique, especially if one alternates the knee), and also of multiphonics (a very fun effect, particularly on the recorder, whereby two notes sound simultaneously by singing one note into the recorder while playing another), among others. Below is an interesting video example. At one point the recorder is taken apart leaving only the mouthpiece. And at another point they are playing the unsightly Paetzold subcontrabass recorder, a blocky stereotypically-modernist beast so unattractive compared to the slender tapered beauty of the standard modern recorder. Still, it makes an impressive sound.

So perhaps its revival is better appreciated as an part of the early music revival as compared to, say, the 20th century revival of the classical guitar, which genuinely made it into a modern instrument. The recorder’s Baroque and Renaissance repertoire is rich and varied. In terms of Baroque composers, Handel and Telemann wrote sonatas for it, Vivaldi wrote recorder concertos, as did Scarlatti, Bach included it in many of his cantatas and two of his Brandenburg concertos, and C.P.E Bach even wrote a work that included bass recorder, one of the few rare instances we have of its use in a pre-20th century work.

Some of the most magnificent examples of recorder music in the Baroque period are found in Bach’s cantatas, a good portion of which specified recorders. His cantata ‘Gottess Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit’ is one such example. The cantata is a lesson on preparing for death, e.g. ‘Ah, Lord, teach us to consider that we must die, so that we might become wise’ (04:44-07:01), or more bluntly, ‘It is the ancient law: human, you must die! Yes, come, Lord Jesus!’ (08:06-11:55) The first movement (00:00-02:36) features two recorders prominently, then the most beautiful writing, I think, comes in the second part of the second movement (04:44-07:01). This is one of my favourite of his cantatas that I’ve heard (admittedly, I’ve still got well over a hundred to go), and it is nearly impossible to imagine how he wrote these gems week in week out.

In Renaissance music the recorder is perhaps not quite as immediately noticeable because of its warmer tone, such that it blends into the consort or orchestra more than the penetrating baroque recorder, as well as the fact that solo forms like the concerto and sonata had yet to be invented in this era of polyphonic equalibrium. It’s also the case that instruments weren’t always specified in scores, though recorders undoubtedly were prominently used among performers and many recorder consorts were set up, including by Henry VIII who even wrote a few tunes for the instrument himself. In terms of great works, you’ll find recorders in a lot of Monteverdi’s music, if you count it as renaissance music. There are a couple of recorders in L’Orfeo, for instance. If you watch this excerpt you’ll hear (and see) the recorders given the theme at about 3:50 and 5:20:

Why not end with this a performance of Vivaldi’s Recorder Concerto in C minor. Though one of the better known recorder works, one still has to be heartened by the fact that nearly 300,000 people have watched this (the recorder’s an alto, for those interested):