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A Short, Personal, and Musical History of Recorders
Bob Marvin

RecordersThe history of recorders starts with a few shards of bone and wood, some images of people with long things in their mouths and hands, and some literary references to “flute” words. Fortunately, later evidence becomes less sketchy, and conclusions less speculative; we never entirely stop guessing, but it’s perhaps a not entirely misplaced article of faith that we can guess more, or less, intelligently.

The mists that swirl about musical practices start to clear sufficiently to make some good guesses towards the end of the middle ages, about 1400, but much of the guessing is based on a confidence in a continuous musical development that we can extrapolate from. We know later music much better. 14th-century Italian trecento music is quite idiosyncratic, but some of the repertoire survives in more cosmopolitan MSS of the early 15th century, justifying some of that confidence. About this time, indistinct and indiscriminate instruments in pictures become what we’d clearly call recorders (one study found double flutes appearing earlier than “normal” single ones in paintings). Most of the images are of small, outwardly cylindrical flauti, so I tried imitating that form with cylindrical bores as well, although there aren’t really any such surviving instruments (and with the space under closed fingers, the bore is far from truly cylindrical). The result was gratifying, a strong octave-rich timbre that seems to suit much pre-renaissance music, especially Italian and Spanish, even laude and villancicos into the 16th century. The sound seems to correspond to the stronger voce di chiesa and the folk-inspired vocal practice cultivated with much success in some modern Italian early music. I like the richer sound of thicker walls, which aggravates the chief technical defect of this design, small octaves, especially between notes III and X, which get even worse in bigger sizes. Leaking fingers can correct the problem, and a chamber in the bore can help, but generally, such recorders need increasing breath-pressure from low to high notes. Fortunately, a bass-heavy balance of sound seems less important in the music than a special, strong interaction within intervals. Music of this time invites consideration of Pythagorean tuning, hints of which survive into late 16th-century musical practices. But talk of tempering its wide, wild ditones into respectable harmonic thirds starts in the early 14th century. Pythagorean has a more varied menu of consonance and dissonance than meantone, with a preference for the richer semiditone; and perhaps its smaller melodic semitones contrast more with wholetones to help characterize different modes and interval species. So I tried some Pythagorean cylindrical flauti, and liked their more active sound in 1300s music better than the more static meantone. Some players prefer this sound (or perhaps more the idea) to the exclusion of meantone in 14th-century music, and indeed the intervals of a Pythagorean flauto are easier refingered “pure” than to try to play a meantone instrument Pythagorean. But much of the repertoire whose harmony seems good for cylindrical flauto features prominent thirds and sixths, and a melodic sense of triads (e.g. Ciconia) better suited to meantone. And physically, meantone fingerhole placement is more regular; cross-fingered woodwinds like small enharmonic semitones. Pythagorean flutes will always be speculative, and to a lesser extent, even cylindrical bores, musically useful as they are.

Much less speculative are the many 16th-century (we think) recorders in museums, most of which are similar in design. In the early 15th century, a new harmony came to France from England, the contenance angloise, rich in thirds and sixths. It became an international standard as it rolled like a juggernaut over Europe, crushing local practices under its thick, triadic wheels. It favored massive tonal architecture, and families of similar instruments of different sizes sprang up, extending down to deep, dinosaurian extremes, which might represent not only an aesthetic taste for the substantial, but also a swanking of construction techniques and vaunting of the wealth of patrons. We may owe the preservation of these instruments to the new prestigious hobby of collecting and of cultural curiosity cabinets, the bigger the item, the more prestige. These recorders appear full-blown, with no trace of development or transitional forms, and the first fixed date, 1535, is on a small basset, which seems to belong more to the big 8’ ensembles than to the 4’ sets of F, c, c, g already found in books. So the development of such recorders seems to predate the phenomenon of collecting. They exploit the new harmony to powerful effect, a deeply gratifying growl in large ensembles. Physically, their bores taper towards the foot, but re-expand from about 3/4 the way down, hence the term “choke-bore.” Acoustically, this suppresses the octave partial, but not the twelfth, a feature of some renaissance viols and virginals, which react similarly to harmonies. Sizes deeper than tenor had a key, and several surviving basses, from basset to brontosaurus greatbass, have 4 keys, extending the range down a fourth. Why? Keys are noisy and problematic, and those lowest notes lack the sonority of a 1-key design. But the range of the instrument is greater, with a lighter, easier feel. An intriguing possibility is the upward extension of range as well, with all those fingering combinations. But maybe they were mostly to show off keywork and long fontanelles.

1535 was also the year of Ganassi’s Fontegara, a wellspring indeed of diminutions, tonguings, playing tips, fingerings, and a picture showing recorders with ever-expanding exteriors and huge bottom bores like miniature soprano saxophones. These features are found, to varying extent, in many illustrations of the time. I’d long dismissed such images as a chimeric, generalized woodwind, combining elements of recorder voicing with the common bell at the bottom of many reeds, an artist’s convention. But then I saw one too many, and tried such flaring bells on my cylindrical flauti (unlikely there’d be a “choke,” making the walls even thicker). I was delighted with the results: not only did I get Ganassi’s extra notes, with similar fingerings, but the bottom notes had more of the focused clarity typical of cylindrical bores. Most recorders respond, to some degree to Ganassi’s fingerings, but the double-octave of the lowest note (overblown, with judicious leaking) is usually sharp (a semitone high on baroque bores). Ganassi’s flare raises the bottom note more than its overblown partials, relatively lowering them. Whether such a design was developed more for the sonority or the extended range is hard to say. And why did it have such a short heyday, such as it was in pictures? Perhaps it was tied to a narrowly specific repertoire or an ephemeral aesthetic (the small but delightful world of frottole?) And the bottom note can be problematic, its basic stability all too readily upset by small fluctuations of bore and voicing (not to mention the rather acrobatic fingerings of the top notes). While there are no surviving instruments with Ganassi’s silhouette, some museum specimens with conventionally “waisted” exteriors respond well to his fingerings. But their huge fingerholes and reamed-out bottoms suspiciously suggest someone was just raising their pitch.

There’s another breed of renaissance recorder, scarcely explored today. In Nürnberg (“Kynsecker”) and Bologna (“Rafi” et al.), are sets of recorders, apparently from the middle–to-late 16th century, with relatively narrow, mostly cylindrical bores rather abruptly contracting near the bottom (Interestingly, before I’d measured l6th-century instruments, my uninformed experiments led me to similar bores.). Were these flutes efforts by makers similarly uninformed about details of “choke-bore” design, to produce impressive-looking recorder sets? Or were they innovations to meet the expressive demands of new aesthetics? They don’t work all that well, with little sound and poor octaves, but the Bologna instruments seem to be well used and played, and my limited experience with some reconstructions suggest they sound better in consort than singularly, and have a dynamic flexibility well-suited to late renaissance music.

With a limited capacity to participate in the dramatic extravagance of baroque music, “classical” renaissance recorders were probably then relegated to stodgy performances of old-time music, splendid in sound, but short on expression. They’re described in some rather retrospective books on music well into the 17th century, but soon became dust collectors or firewood.

German music borrowed extensively from Italian and French, but it’s hard to say how deep, as well as broad, that borrowing was. Did they imitate the light, vigorous poise of the French (the superficial polish that permits a view within) or the frenetic reactivity of Italians? To what extent did they add good German substance (far be it from me to say “heaviness”) to these foreign tastes that were disdained while being envied and admired? Did Telemann hear his A-moll suite as real French music, or as is the modern tradition, with little to do with French style and the movements’ titles? I see “sincerity” as the main feature of German culture (despite there being no really equivalent German word), so a German recorder, besides having both (or neither) French and Italian qualities, and easy top notes, might have a menschliche voice, with lots of Herz and Seele.

The transition from a “choke-bore” to baroque only entails less reaming out of the foot, and several instruments, as well as a 16th-century fingering chart, point in that direction. The early 17th century abounds in suggestions of little flauti in sonata titles and other music, images of small recorders in sensual allegories, or being colporteured and kramered at fairs, and of course, in Van Eyck, et al. There are some original instruments that might serve as models to play the variety of early 17th-century music with some flexibility of expression, yet clarity of sound, and perhaps a trace of a certain sensuality.

And then God said “Que les Hotteterrres soient.” And they made the jointed baroque recorder, and Dolmetsch saw that it was good. We might ask just what the Hotteterres thought they were doing, what they actually did, and to what extent they innovated. Were instruments jointed for musical reasons, to facilitate experimentation, for ease of personal transport, or to use cheap little pieces of boxwood? (Some 16th-century basses have clever joints under the fontanelle to obviate using big wood the whole length.) There’s a thread of coyness running through French music, from the vaux de vire and chansons parisiennes to voix de ville and airs de cour. The almost excruciatingly coy naïveté of the flûte à bec seems like the pointed tip of that thread, and its role as innocent metaphor in the interplay between sacred and profane love, and the class conflict between jaquerie and nobilité is worth our attention.

As was said of a recent politician, the recorder has much to be modest about, and of an actress, running the gamut of expression from A to B. The recorder has a limited repertoire of expression, but within that range, a powerful idiosyncrasy that keeps it repeatedly rebounding from ignominy.

Photo: Randi Rosenblum

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