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Thomann's Cool Online Guides: Recorders

6. Repertoire-Specific Instruments

At the highest level, recorders are repertoire-specific, with certain designs being more suited to particular periods. The wide bore and large fingerholes associated with Renaissance recorders result in an ‘open’ and fairly loud sound. Commonly played in consorts, these instruments somewhat resemble organ pipes, and it’s easy to see how their sound matched that of the vocal ensembles whose music they frequently played. The simple design means that the range of a Renaissance recorder is slightly smaller than its Baroque equivalent, and the fingering method varies more from instrument to instrument. As the fingerholes are larger, smaller movements create greater variations in tuning, and to be able to play well and in tune in a Renaissance consort is a specialised skill.

Renaissance recorder

The transition from ensemble to solo playing took place between the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Much early Baroque (c.1610) solo repertoire with continuo was versatile and would have been played on one of several instruments, including violin and cornetto (an early trumpet) as well as the recorder. The instrument often used for this increasingly virtuosic solo music is a Ganassi or G treble, pitched a tone higher than the standard Baroque treble and more akin to the Renaissance recorder in design.

Progressing into the Baroque period, composers began to write more for specifically designated instruments, and although the performance of violin repertoire on the recorder began to decline, it was still common to borrow between recorder and flute music, which usually adapts well. The Baroque recorder’s slightly more developed design increases its range and also makes playing in tune easier. With a narrower tapered bore, its upper octave and beyond is more reliable, although the general dynamic is quieter. An increased dynamic range can be achieved though, via a specialised method of alternative fingerings, which also create different tonal characteristics. It was also the type of recorder that sometimes featured in the chamber orchestra music of Bach or the Baroque operas of Purcell.

Baroque recorder

Another specialist recorder is the Baroque tenor in D (rather than the usual C), also known as the ‘voice flute’. This is most commonly used today as a way of accessing French repertoire, of which very little was originally written for recorder. Such music usually sits slightly lower in range than the standard treble is capable of. In French pieces for two instrumental lines and continuo, it can work well to use a treble in F and a tenor in D, bringing the instruments closer in tonal quality than if the tenor in C were used.

Finally, there is the issue of pitch. Standard, modern-pitch Baroque recorders are pitched at A=440Hz, today’s norm, which means that they can be played alongside the piano and other musicians with ease. More accurate copies of Baroque-pitch (also known as low-pitch) instruments are slightly larger and are pitched at A=415Hz, and as awareness and knowledge of Baroque performance practice has grown, so has performance at this pitch. Their Renaissance predecessors are often pitched higher at A=466Hz, although as these were originally designed to be played only with each other, historically there was more variation, and consorts of recorders were instead tuned relative to the other members of the group. French music is often performed even lower than modern pitch at A=392Hz and has a distincively different style, both in notation and execution.

Whereas string and keyboard instruments can be tuned up or down accordingly, recorders cannot, and therefore each different performance pitch means a different recorder. It’s also worth noting that tuning standards can vary internationally by a couple of Hz, but this is manageable.

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