Renaissance Recorders

I have been working for many years on establishing a checklist of surviving renaissance recorders. The idea is to try to gather as much information as possible about each instrument, and incorporating this into a data base from which conclusions can be drawn. The current state of this research can be found at my online database. In getting familiar with a great number of these original instruments, I slowly became aware that few of the instruments we know today play with fingerings  given in the sixteenth century recorder treatises. In particular the fingering for the fourteenth note, (a” on a tenor) was always given as Ø12 – – – – – instead of the more usual Ø12 – – – 67 or variant. This suggested to me that perhaps some of the instruments were more cylindrical than the surviving specimens I knew, and that ‘the renaissance recorder’ was maybe not such a fixed design as I had previously thought.

Cylindrical Consort Recorders (Modelled on Virdung)

A consort of recorders modelled on Virdung’s woodcut illustrations; made in service wood

This question led to my making some very different small consorts based on the woodcut illustrations in the treatises of Virdung and Agricola. My first point of departure was the Rafi/Grece instruments in Bologna. I first heard about these instruments while still at college and had also tried to make a few prototype instruments. I had however, dismissed their long slender ramps and almost square windows as something rather too exotic, and instead used more conventional voicing dimensions. Some years later however, having seen this type of voicing in many paintings and woodcuts of the period, in addition to those of Virdung and Agricola, I decided to try to use some of the details of these instruments to make a new design.

My first attempts were based heavily on the Bologna instruments. Their narrow, almost cylindrical bores gave excellent results in the high register, but I found the low notes far too soft to use as consort instruments. I then came across another highly unusual recorder in the Leipzig collection (inventory number, 1134), which had a very similar internal shape to the Rafi/Grece instruments, but having a huge bore diameter in comparison to the length of the instrument. I tried a different ratio between these two parameters and found that by increasing the bore size, I got a better balance between the low and high registers and, depending on the shape of the foot, could even get two octaves using Ganassi’s fingerings.

My next concern was the question of pitch, I knew that any bass instrument had to be a fifth below the tenor, but I felt that using this construction, I wouldn’t be able to make such a huge instrument. The tone-holes of the tenor were already enormous and I couldn’t see how I could get over this problem without using additional keys. In the end I resolved this problem by moving the pitch up a whole tone. The Rafi instruments were already much higher than a=466 Hz and instead of going down in pitch, I moved them up to the next convenient semitone. This solution gave me a bass instrument in modern g#, a tenor/alto in d# and a discant in a#. Their nominal pitch as FCCG instruments then works out at three semitones higher than modern a=440 Hz, at an uncompromising a=520 Hz.

Virdung’s Woodcut of a Coppel of recorders

I used the woodcut illustrations from Virdung to model the outside form of the instruments, and after some experimentation, use a cap blown design for the bass. Their sound is very solid and compared to most other recorder types, is relatively pitch stable. This allows a lot of dynamic flexibility and this, combined with their distinctive articulation gives an interesting variation to the normal renaissance consort. Musically they can be used for a wide range of repertoire, providing the music fits the FCCG schema. (See my documentation concerning the conical renaissance recorders elsewhere on this site.) It suits both dance music as well more polyphonic vocal writing.

Consorts constructed with this design remain both highly speculative and experimental. Having little basis in surviving instruments and using the woodcuts as a template, gives me the freedom to experiment with different ideas. Each consort made so far has been quite different from the last and there are a number of different possibilities which can be incorporated. It is essential with this type of recorder to discuss these with me in advance to find a working solution.

Sound Example

A recording of a Virdung consort played by the ensemble Artesonado can be found on the Sounds page.