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 few 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

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 many 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. 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 interval of a fifth between each 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. This combination, often overlooked today, gives the great advantage that similar fingerings are used on each instrument, producing a more homogeneous and full sound. It should be remembered here that 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 this information 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 tables in chapter 3).

The quantities of recorders needed, will depend on the number of parts played. For four part music, the middle size is normally doubled (f, c, c, g) and for five and six parts, the middle size would be tripled and the top size doubled. (f, c, c, c, g’) (f, c, c, c, g’, g’).

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 marked !! in Verona (only the basses of these latter instruments remain).

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 will create problems with the combination of three sizes 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” and a fifth higher than the nominal g’ 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. The modern solution, which we can assume from the evidence of surviving recorders seems to have its roots in the early 17th century, is to play these pieces without transposition using the combination of alternate fourths and fifths, (f, c’, f’, c”). Apart from Praetorius, who suggests a soprano size in c” as well as d” we don’t find any reference for the use of instruments tuned in octaves in the treatises.

My instruments

Since around 2003, I have been making renaissance consorts in two separate systems, which I feel reflect the above knowledge 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. In addition, I can make an alto in f’ and a soprano in c” for the set based on !! instruments, to allow alternate fifth/forth combinations in the highest register.


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’

In addition, I can make an alto in f’ and a soprano in c” for the set based on !! instruments, to allow alternate fifth/forth combinations.

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

Great bass recorder after !!

In keeping with my policy of making consorts based on the very latest research into historical recorders, I have added a second great bass to my list of consort recorders. I needed a second great bass to complete the consort of recorders after !! and happily I found a very good instrument in the Accademia Filarmonica Verona, inventory number 13.253, which I have re-scaled to fit my nominal pitch of a=466 Hz. (the original is somewhat lower than this, around a=455 Hz) The instrument is slightly less conical than the HIE.S great bass in Vienna, and the bore is also smaller in diameter. This gives it a more strident, solid sound, in keeping with the (to my mind) later style of the !! recorders.

Detail of HIER.S/HIE.S consort

Some consort solutions

The ideal small consort would be based on the !! instruments: a basset in f, two tenors in c’ an alto in f’ and g’ and a soprano in c”. 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. Either the !! set which has the compromise interval of a forth between the bass and great bass sizes.  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” or the more ‘fundamentalist’ solution: 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 feel free to write should you need any further information or advice in choosing the composition of a consort.

Further Reading

I highly recommend the following:

  • 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.

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