[In German ‘Fleite’ or ‘Flöte’; in Italian, ‘flauto’ or ‘fiauto’; in Spanish, ‘flauta’]
A woodwind instrument with a thumb-hole and (generally) seven finger-holes. It is the chief Western member of the class of duct flutes, i.e. flutes with a whistle mouthpiece, being distinguished from most other members particularly by its thumb-hole.
Invented (or imported to Europe) during the Middle Ages, it was one of the most common wind instruments of the Renaissance and continued to play an important role in the Baroque. After being little used during the Classical and Romantic periods, it was resuscitated in the early 20th century and featured prominently in the early-music revival. Today it is a widely popular educational and amateur instrument and has attracted a skilled body of professionals.
Recorders are made in different sizes, with compasses corresponding to different vocal ranges. There are four main instruments in use today: the descant (known in the USA as the ‘soprano’; lowest note c''); treble (in the USA ‘alto’; lowest note f'), tenor (lowest note c') and bass (f). Sopranino (f'') and great bass (c) instruments are also fairly common. The treble and tenor are written for as non-transposing instruments, but music for the sopranino, descant, bass and great bass is customarily written an octave below their sounding pitch.
The verb ‘to record’, meaning ‘to remember for oneself, to recall to another’, derives from the Latin recordari, ‘to remember’; thus a recorder was a rememberer or relater, such as a minstrel or, by extension, his instrument.
The standard modern recorder was created by Arnold Dolmetsch (beginning in 1919) with further modifications by his son Carl. They began with the late-Baroque recorder of the French type, replacing the narrow, curved windway with a wide, straight one, reinventing the double holes for the lowest two finger-holes, and in the 1930s rescaling to modern pitch and equal temperament.
The most promising addition of electronics to the recorder is Philippe Bolton’s electro-acoustical recorder (in which a microphone is screwed into the side of the head joint and connected to a PA system and, if desired, an effects processor).
The revival of the recorder in the 20th century at first introduced little in recorder technique that had not already been practiced in the Renaissance and Baroque. Even the modern double-tonguing, teke or dege, often considered a post-Baroque innovation, was noted as far back as 1535. In the late 1950s and 60s, however, Michael Vetter, Frans Brüggen and other virtuosos shocked the recorder world with bold new techniques. Because of its construction with open finger-holes and duct mouthpiece, the recorder came to be considered the woodwind instrument capable of producing the widest range of techniques and special effects. These have since been absorbed by professionals and employed in an increasing number of compositions.
Hints at the recorder’s value as a teaching instrument are found in the recorder treatises and tutors of the Renaissance and Baroque. In several countries the recorder found its way into primary schools from the 1930s onwards, encouraged by the advocacy of Edgar Hunt and the manufacture of cheap descants in both wood and plastic, and has continued in this role to the present day. The recorder has also taken an important part in Orff-Schulwerk. The desire to raise playing and teaching standards encouraged the foundation of the European Recorder Teachers Association (ERTA) in 1990 (branches in Austria, Germany and the UK) and the American Recorder Teachers Association (ARTA) in 1993.
The recorder was used in 17th-century Spanish and English theatre with various associations.
From the late Baroque, the extensive repertory of solo sonatas and the rather smaller number of pieces for recorder and orchestra have naturally attracted the most attention among modern professional players. Yet the chamber music and especially the vocal music involving the recorder tend to display the instrument to better advantage.
n England, Henry Purcell wrote a great deal of vocal music featuring simple recorder parts, generally for two instruments. In the vocal works of Handel, the recorder is used to represent death as well as the supernatural, often as liberation or a sacrifice for the sake of love.
Before the 1960s, the 20th-century recorder repertory was largely tonal or modal. A key figure in inspiring the composition of new works in the late 1930s was Manuel Jacobs, a pupil of Edgar Hunt.
York Bowen’s substantial sonata (1948) introduced the practice, later common, of a single player using more than one recorder in a piece. The first avant-garde works of the 1960s introduced extended techniques and often a high degree of technical accomplishment. The extensive repertory of the 1980s and 90s from Europe, the Americas, Australasia and Japan features a bewildering variety of styles, from minimalist to microtonal.
Reference (with liberty): New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell, (editors), 2nd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
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