Renaissance Consort recorders

These instruments are the more ‘normal’ renaissance recorders, that I started making around 1985. They all have a range of one octave and a minor seventh and over the last 20 years, I have been revising my designs to produce instruments that are much closer to the original recorders I have measured in various different museums. The many different sizes of recorder can lead to confusion and much of my research in past has been to answer the question of which sizes the ideal consort should consist of. In short, there is no easy answer to this, the choices are so dependent on the type of music to be played, the number of parts and whether they are to be used with other instruments or not. My own motivation for these guidelines is not to sell more instruments, but actually quite the opposite, because making extra instruments to an existing set is a difficult and unrewarding thing to do. It almost always ends up as a compromise that could have been avoided if the correct numbers of instruments had been ordered from the start. In addition, my long waiting list means that if mistakes have been made, a long wait for any extra instruments will result. I now have a lot of experience in this matter, so please do take the time to discuss this with me and I will work with you to find the best solution for your situation.

!! (Bassano) consort with extended basset

Original recorders and their sizes

At first glance, the surviving original renaissance recorders seem to have been made with little regard for pitch. There are clusters of instruments that could be related to around a=466 Hz, depending on our ideas of nominal sizes, but there are many exceptions and some instruments seem to defy all attempts to place them in any pitch logic. However, the one thing that can be said with some authority is that the majority of surviving instruments that can be matched into sets, are built in sizes a fifth apart from each other. This ties in nicely with the historical information we have on performance practice of recorder consorts, which suggests that, regardless of the number of parts of a specific vocal or instrumental composition, a recorder consort was usually made up of only three different sizes, nominally in f, c’ and g’. These imitate the three voice types used in the standard renaissance vocal group: bassus, tenor/altus, cantus. The combined range of these three sizes was enough to cover the entire gamut (the renaissance tone system), and the nominal lowest pitch of the three sizes, also neatly corresponded both with the soft, natural and hard hexachords of the solmisation system as well as the F, C and G clefs used in clef notation. Most music originally written in the chiave naturali clefs, will fit perfectly on a nominal f, c’, c’, g’ combination. The use of what in modern terms would be described as an alto size in g’ for the soprano or cantus part is still a difficult concept for many recorder players, who approach Renaissance music having grown up with Baroque recorder sizes. But today it can be stated with considerable confidence that an alto size in f’ never existed before the 1660’s at the very earliest and so consequently, the soprano size in g’ would have been the only option for players in the Renaissance… This f, c’, c’, g’ combination gives the great advantage that in any given piece, similar fingerings are used on each instrument, producing a more homogeneous and full sound. It is not simply a question of what will “work” but more importantly, about what sounds best.

Playing in registers

It must be assumed from the above and the seeming lack of any kind of standard pitch, that the recorder was treated in much the same way as we regard transposing instruments today. The basic consort was read as f, c and g’ no matter what sounding pitch the instruments had. The only important criteria was simply that the three sizes of instrument in a given consort, must be a fifth apart. Surviving recorders are known to exist in sets which stretch in consecutive fifths from F to e” and the music could be played, reading as f, c’, c’, g’, in up to four different “positions” or registers. This is a practice outlined by Praetorius in Syntagma Musicum II (see his table in chapter 3 of SMII).

To simplify things for the rest of this text, I will refer to these ‘virtual’ or ‘reading’ sizes as being in F, C, C and G, no matter which pitch the instruments play at.

The quantities of recorders needed, will depend on the number of parts played. As we have seen, in four-part music, the middle size is normally doubled to give the combination FCCG, although combinations like FCGG, FFCG and even FFCC are not unknown. In all cases you need to find the original clefs of any piece you play, since these will guide you in your combination, and also tell you if the editor has transposed the piece from the original.

For music written in five and six parts, the possible combinations multiply, but again the middle size will tend to be tripled in 5-part music (FCCCG) and the top size doubled with 6-Parts. (FCCCGG)

The great bass size

However, the great bass seems always to have been tuned around F,  for the obvious practical reason that a larger instrument would have been physically too large to play. This led to the following problem, either the cycle of fifths began with the great bass and was as follows: F, c, g, d’, a’, e”, or the cycle started with the basset size and went up in fifths: f, c’, g’, d”, and down one fifth, then a fourth: f, B flat, F. (together: F, B♭, f, c’, g’, d”) The first combination is precisely the combination of the HIER S· / HIE·S instruments in Vienna, whereas the second is the combination mentioned by Praetorius and mirrored in the surviving instruments by the Bassano family which are marked !! . The largest sets of these latter instruments are in Verona, where only the basses have survived.

Problems with this system

Music written in the chiavette clef system was always transposed down a fourth or a fifth, when played on recorders or other stromenti choristi, but this sometimes means that the lower parts fall too low on the instruments. This creates problems with the FCCG combination and the use of extended basses for the bass and sometimes the tenor parts is one solution and the probable reason for these instruments’ existence.

Towards the end of the sixteenth century, composers started to exceed the limits of the old gamut. This resulted in mixed clef, or non-transposable clef combinations (typically a piece with a cantus written in G2 and a bassus in F4), for which the use of a nominal forth size of recorder, in D, a fifth higher than the nominal G soprano instrument is the solution. It makes reading the top line technically more difficult. There are however, strong indications that this was the preferred option in the late 16th century and indeed Praetorius gives recommendations as to how this can be affected.

My instruments

Since around 2003, I have been making renaissance consorts in two separate systems, which I feel reflect the above research and keep in mind the practical ideas of today’s players. In the following table are the sizes I have chosen, together with their lowest notes relative to a=466 Hz, and where relevant, the original instruments they are based upon. The two columns show the two distinct systems and how the sizes can be combined.

Set: HIERS/HIES

Great bass in FVienna SAM 169 HIE·S
Bass in CVienna SAM 167 HIE·S
Basset in gVienna SAM 162 HIE·S
Tenor in d'Vienna SAM 143 HIER S·
Alto in a'Vienna SAM 132 HIER S·
Soprano in e"Based on alto in a'

Set: !!

Great bass in FVerona 13243 ! !
Bass in B♭Verona 13245 ! !
Basset in fVerona 13250-3 !!
Tenor in c'Vienna SAM 150 ! !
Alto in g'Vienna SAM 135 ! !
Soprano in d''Based on alto in g’

Sound examples of the two consorts can be found under “Sound Files

Detail of HIER.S/HIE.S consort

So what’s the difference between the two consorts?

It’s difficult to describe in words the playing characteristics of the two consorts. All I can say is that I have tried to emphasise the physical differences between the two sets – the Bassano instruments have more cylindrical bores, wider windways and tend to be more powerful and stable, particularly in their lowest notes. That said, power is not everything and many players prefer the more whimsical nature of the HIERS/HIES recorders. I like to think of the latter as an earlier example of consort making, perhaps from around 1520-1550, but the problem is that the originals cannot be dated with any certitude. That said they do seem to particularly suit the more ‘horizontal’ structure of the Franco-Flemish repertoire from the late 15th and early 16th centuries, whereas the Bassanos excel in more homophonic works. Think of a race horse compared with a cart horse – the HIERS/HIES recorders need to be coaxed into giving their finest, whereas the Bassano consort will feel more obvious and forgiving.

Some consort solutions

The ideal small consort would be based on the !! instruments: a basset in f, two tenors in c’ and an alto in g’. With this set almost all four part 16th century music would be possible, (for five part music another tenor would be needed and for six another alto in g’). The addition of a soprano in d” as well as a second alto would allow playing in a second register, a fifth higher. (c’, g’, g’, d”).

For larger consorts, The choice has to be made between one of the two sets shown above. The Bassano set has the compromise interval of a forth between the bass and great bass sizes and all the middle sizes should then be doubled to allow the maximum number of four registers: F, B♭, B♭, f / B♭, f, f  c’ / f, c’, c’, g’ / c’, g’, g’, d”.

A more ‘fundamentalist’ solution might be the reproduction of the famous Vienna set of HIERS/HIES instruments: great bass in F, 3 basses in c, 3 bassets in g, 3 tenors in d’, and 2 altos in a’. This gives the possibility of playing most four part music in three registers namely: F, c, c, g / c, g, g, d’ / g, d’, d’, a’, with enough spare instruments to play five and six part music in the same registers.

Extended bass and basset recorders  (!!)

I have been conducting experiments with these recorders, three of which survive with two note extensions. The basset size is based on Verona 13249 and is a basset in f with the extended notes e and d. The bass is based on Saint Petersburg 409, a bass in B♭ with the extended notes A and G. These extension notes work in a similar manner of the short octaves found on contemporary keyboard instruments and are sometimes important in the tenor and bass lines of transposed chiavette pieces.

I hope this little text will be clear and useful and please contact me if you need any further information or advice in choosing the composition of a consort. I can provide examples of pieces and can work with you on your own repertoire to find a good solution to your needs.

Further Reading

I highly recommend that you read the following before ordering a renaissance consort:

  • Adrian Brown. An Overview of the Surviving Renaissance Recorders. Musiques de Joie, Proceedings of the International Renaissance Recorder and Flute Consort Symposium Ed. David Lasocki. Utrecht: STIMU, 2005. 77–98.
  • Peter van Heyghen. The Recorder Consort in the Sixteenth Century: Dealing with the Embarrassment of Riches. Musiques de Joie, Proceedings of the International Renaissance Recorder and Flute Consort Symposium Utrecht 2003. Ed. David Lasocki. Utrecht: STIMU, 2005. 227–321.
  • Peter van Heyghen. The recorder in Italian Music 1600–1670. The Recorder in the 17th Century, Proceedings of the International Recorder Symposium, Utrecht 1993. Ed. David Lasocki. Utrecht: STIMU, 1993. 3–63.

© Adrian Brown 2017 & 2022.

HIER.S/HIE.S and !! consorts in the Vienna Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst