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Recorder Flute


Various Recorder Flutes

The recorder is a flute-like woodwind musical instrument. Contrariwise, the flute is a recorder-like woodwind musical instrument. In German it is called the Blockflöte, in French the flûte à bec, and in Italian the flauto dolce. It is held vertically from the lips (rather than horizontally like the 'transverse' flute). The player's breath is directed by a wooden 'fipple' or 'block' in the mouthpiece of the instrument along a duct called the 'windway'. Exiting from the windway, the breath is directed against a hard edge called the labium, which agitates a column of air, the length of which (and the pitch of the note produced) is modified by finger holes in the front and back of the instrument. Because of the fixed position of the windway with respect to the labium, there is no need to form an embouchure with the lips. On the other hand the shape and size of the recorder player's mouth cavity has a discernable effect on the timbre, tone and response of the recorder -- but we could hardly call this an "embouchure". This is similar to the functioning of the ancestors of the recorder, early folk whistles.

The recorder was known in the 18th century simply as Flute (Flauto) -- the transverse form was separately referred to as Traverso. It was for the recorder that J.S. Bach wrote the 4th Brandenburg concerto in G major (though Thurston Dart mistakenly suggested that it was intended for flageolets at a higher pitch, and in a recording under Neville Marriner using Dart's editions it was played an octave higher than usual on sopranino recorders). In fact Bach scored this work for two "flauti d'echo", or echo flutes, an example of which survives in Leipzig to this day. It consisted of two recorders in f' connected together by leather flanges: one instrument was voiced to play softly, the other loudly. Vivaldi wrote three concertos for the "flautino", an instrument first thought to be the piccolo. It is now generally accepted, however, that the instrument intended was the sopranino recorder.

The instrument went into decline after the 18th century, being used for about the last time as an other-worldly sound by Gluck in his opera Orfeo ed Euridice. Nonetheless there were probably more works (ca 800) written for the recorder during the 19th century than in all the preceding centuries: the instrument simply sprouted keys and changed its name, being known as the csakan or "flute douce". Although it was revived at the beginning of the 20th century by German scholar/performers and in Britain by Arnold Dolmetsch and others, even in the early 20th century it was uncommon enough that Stravinsky thought it to be a kind of clarinet, which is not surprising since the early clarinet was, in a sense, derived from the recorder, at least in its outward appearance. Subsequent to its rediscovery (notwithstanding the fact that recorders continued to be made and played throughout the 19th and early 20th century) it became very popular in schools, since it is inexpensive, easy to play at some level, is pre-tuned, and is not too strident in even the most musically-inept hands. It is however incorrect to assume that mastery is similarly easy -- like other instruments, it requires talent and study to play it at an advanced level.

Modern composers of great stature have written for it, including Luciano Berio, John Tavener, Malcolm Tippet, Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bernstein, Gordon Jacob, and Edmund Rubbra. It is also occasionally used in popular music, including that of groups such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix. Prominent jazz musician Keith Jarrett has even recorded an entire album of recorder music in which he himself plays recorders.

Recorders are most often tuned in C and F, though instruments in D, G, Eb were not uncommon historically and are still found today especially the Tenor in D known as a voice flute. The normal, school instrument, recorder is the soprano in C (in Britain known as the descant) which has a lowest note of c'. Above this are the sopranino in F and the gar klein Flötlein ("really small flute") in C, with a lowest note of c". An experimental 'piccolino' has also been produced in f". Below the soprano are the alto in F (in Britain known as the treble), tenor in C and basset in F (in Britain known as the bass) . Lower instruments in C and F exist (bass in C - in Britain also known as the Great Bass, contrabass in F, subcontrabass in C, and sub-subcontrabass or octo-contrabass in F) but are more rare. They are also difficult to handle: the contrabass in F is about 2 meters tall. The soprano and the alto are the most common solo instruments in the recorder family.

The range of a recorder is about 2 octaves, chromatically. The instrument can be played chromatically over two octaves and a fifth by a skilled player, except for the augmented prime, two octaves and one semitone above the base note. This note is either absent or can only be played by covering the end of the instrument, typically by using one's upper leg or a special bell key. Basically, a recorder is a diatonic instrument, with one hole for each note of the scale of its lowest note, although the upper half of the second octave requires irregular fingerings. Two versions exist, one using the major scale and an older one using the lydian scale.

The chromatic scale degrees are played by so-called "fork" fingerings, uncovering one hole and covering one or more of the ones below it. Fork fingerings have a different tonal character from the diatonic notes, giving the recorder its characteristic woody and somewhat uneven sound.

Today, high-quality recorders are made from a range of different hardwoods, such oiled pear wood, rosewood or boxwood with a fipple of cedar wood. However, many recorders are often made of plastic, which is cheaper, more resistant to condensation, and doesn't require re-oiling. While higher-end professional instruments are almost always wooden, many plastic recorders currently being produced are equal to or better than lower-end wooden instruments. Beginner's instruments, the sort usually found in children's ensembles, are also made of plastic and can be purchased quite cheaply.


There are three separate and distinct recorder fingering systems: historical, modern, and German. The best way to differentiate among these three systems is to describe the fingerings they require to play the fourth scale (f' on a soprano recorder) although these systems often require different fingerings for other scale degrees as well, e.g f, f#' and f#.

Historical f': O / 123 / 4–6 / - Modern f': O / 123 / 4–6 / 7 German f': O / 123 / 4–- / -

Historical Fingering

This is the fingering system used by original renaissance (late 16th/early 17th century) and baroque (late 17th/early 18th century) recorders, as well as by some (but by no means not all) modern reproductions of renaissance and baroque recorders. In comparison to modern fingering, which is in fact a latter-day derivative of historical fingering, it requires a simple forked fingering for the fourth scale degree in the first octave. The downside of historical fingering is that the fingering for the fourth scale degree in the second octave is more cumbersome, requiring a half hole by the right ring finger on the sixth tone hole. On some instruments, this fingering can be circumvented by using Ø / 123 / 4–– / 7 instead of Ø / 123 / 4–Ø /–, which is nevertheless still somewhat cumbersome for some players. A further downside to historical fingering is that the raised fifth scale degree in the second octave tends to be rather flat; this is not wholly undesirable if one wishes to play in one of the meantone temperaments, where G# and C# are lower, but it is decidedly a drawback to the great majority of players who attempt to play in some semblance of equal temperament.
There are, of course, substantial differences between historical renaissance and baroque fingerings, since the bores of those instrument types differ radically from one another. One might do well to distinguish between historical renaissance fingerings and historical baroque fingerings, but that could well complicate matters still further. However, it might be worthwhile noting that most surviving original renaissance recorders require a fingering of – / ––– / ––– / – for the second scale degree in the second octave. Since this makes holding on to the instrument a bit problematic, to say the least, most modern makers of renaissance recorders produce instruments which use the standard baroque/modern fingering – –2– / ––– / – for this note. Furthermore, most renaissance recorders use completely different fingerings for the raised fifth, sixth, and raised sixth scale degrees in the second octave than either historical baroque or modern recorders.

Modern Fingering

This term is regrettably used by relatively few people but it is in fact the best word for describing the fingering system that is most widely used today. In the early and mid 20th century, the term English fingering was used to differentiate it from the German fingering system then in use in northern European countries. Today, most players refer to this system as "baroque fingering," but this term is very much a misnomer, seeing as it is most decidedly not the fingering system used in the baroque period or on baroque recorders. As previously discussed this latter system is correctly termed historical or baroque fingering; applying the term "baroque" to modern recorders just confuses the issue. Perhaps pseudo-baroque might be more appropriate.
Modern fingering is the most universal recorder fingering system in use today. It is used for virtually all instruments of modern design, save for a very few vestigial remnant student instruments made in German fingering. Interestingly enough, most custom makers of my acquaintance report that the great majority of orders they receive for reproduction baroque recorders are for instruments with modern rather than historical fingering. Apparently many if not most advanced players wanting to play reproduction historical recorders may well pay lip service to the authenticity of historical fingering and single holes, but when it comes right down to putting their money on the line, they opt for instruments with modern fingering and double tone holes -- which is perhaps not such a bad thing after all!

German Fingering

This was a drastically modified fingering system developed by several German recorder makers working between World War I and World War II. Pioneer makers such as as Peter Harland sought to redesign the recorder so that its fingering for the fourth scale degree in both octaves was identical to that of modern woodwind instruments such as the flute, clarinet, and saxophone. The impetus was quite obviously a pedagogical one: it made the transition from recorder to a modern woodwind much simpler for a schoolchild.

The fingerings for the fourth scale degree in both octaves are identical and greatly simplified from historical recorder fingerings. Unfortunately, these simplifications came at too great a price: the fingerings for the raised fourth scale degree became much more complex and frequently less stable and more out of tune as well, and the raised fifth scale degree in the second became extremely flat, even more so than in historically-fingered instruments. Furthermore, voicing became far more problematic on instruments with German fingering. The end result was that German-fingered recorders were more cumbersome to play in anything other than the keys of C and F, were more out of tune and less stable in intonation, and had a windy, breathy tone quality.

German fingering never caught on very widely outside of Germany, Austria Belgium, Holland, and Switzerland. Even in those countries, its use has declined drastically during the past half century as awareness of its acoustical inadequacies has increased. Relatively few teachers advocate its use any more. Some European makers who once made both German and Mordern
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