“‘Oh the recorders, let me see one.” Hamlet, Act 3 sc. 2
A member of the flute family with relatives in other cultures around the world, the recorder is known to have been in use in Italy by the fourteenth century. The earliest recorders were made from a single piece of wood and came in two sizes. By 1619, the composer and music theorist Michael Praetorius listed eight different sizes, from a small sopranino to a great bass.
These different sizes were often built to be played together in a “consort,” like a small instrumental choir, and performed dance music, transcriptions of vocal pieces, and more complicated instrumental works; but a very sophisticated type of solo playing must also have existed. The world’s first recorder method book, written by the Venetian Silvestro Ganassi and published in 1535, includes instructions for elaborate melodic decoration, and tantalizing mentions of “good players” to whom the serious student must be sure to listen. (Oh, to have been a fly on the wall …)
In the seventeenth century the recorder’s design gradually changed to incorporate a more conical bore and a division of the instrument into separate joints, and by the turn of the eighteenth its appearance and range took on the one we’re most familiar with today. Though various sizes of recorder were still made and played, the alto recorder was the size most commonly seen in a solo or small ensemble role.
The recorder can boast a wealth of repertoire by composers both well known and less familiar. Handel composed wonderful sonatas and chamber music for the recorder, and some of the most delightful recorder obbligato parts ever written are found in his operas. J.S. Bach used the instrument in over twenty of his cantatas, the Easter Oratorio, and the Second and Fourth Brandenburg Concertos. And Telemann’s own skill as a recorder player is reflected in his brilliant and demanding solo and double concertos, chamber music, solo sonatas, and cantata obbligato parts.
Recorder instruction books for the amateur market continued to be published into the 1790s, but the instrument was a poor match for the classical and romantic aesthetics, and for the developing orchestra, so it spent most of the nineteenth century in a deep sleep. The twentieth-century early-music revival resulted in a true recorder renaissance which continues to this day.