The Development of the Recorder

See works of art
  • Lucas van Uffel (died 1637)
  • Tenor Recorder
  • Soprano Recorder in B
  • Tenor recorder
  • Alto Recorder in F
  • Alto Recorder in F-sharp
  • Alto Recorder in F
  • Venus and the Lute Player

Works of Art (9)


The Recorder in the Renaissance
The profile of the modern recorder, in three sections so familiar to grade-school children, emerged in the second half of the seventeenth century, but the recorder’s history begins at least two or three centuries earlier. The two earliest extant recorders, both small, plain wooden instruments, date from the fourteenth century, and archival and pictorial evidence survives from the same period. A member of the flute family, the recorder was used for art music in western Europe throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. As a musical instrument, the recorder is identified by its whistle mouthpiece (also known as a fipple or duct), by the seven fingerholes on the front of the instrument, and by the thumbhole on the back side. Until our time, it was usually made of wood, although occasionally of ivory.

Most Renaissance recorders were constructed from a single piece of undecorated wood with a predominantly cylindrical bore. The instrument had a relatively narrow range of an octave and a sixth, with a rich timbre, perfect for blending in an ensemble. Makers would construct matched consorts of various sizes of recorders, from the smallest—only a few inches long—to the largest, which might measure more than six feet. A full family of recorders was needed for playing the notated polyphonic repertory of the period—motets, secular songs, fantasias, canzonas, and arrangements of dances—music made commonly available in the sixteenth century by the invention of music printing in 1501. A typical recorder ensemble, as described by music theorists Sebastian Virdung (1511) and Martin Agricola (1532) and illustrated by Michael Praetorius (Syntagma musicum, 1614–20) and Marin Mersenne (Harmonie universelle, 1636–37), might comprise an alto in G’, two tenors in C’, and a basset in F [recorder consort from Praetorius]. King Henry VIII (r. 1509–47), an avid amateur musician, by the end of his life owned seventy-six recorders, undoubtedly organized in several matched choirs. They were likely played by the five members of the Bassano family, the royal professional recorder consort, as well as by Henry himself. The Museum’s tenor recorder in C’ (89.4.3133), while possibly constructed in the seventeenth century, is a typical Renaissance-style recorder, made from a single piece of maple, simple in appearance, with twin fingerholes on the bottom, allowing the player the option of playing left- or right-handed after plugging the unused hole.

The Recorder in the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries
During the sixteenth century and into the seventeenth, a new music aesthetic emerged in western Europe, emphasizing the soloist’s ability to express emotion and to dazzle with virtuosity. The years around 1600 marked the birth of opera, the rise of music making in public concert halls and theaters (with the attendant need for performers to project to and impress an audience), and further growth in the businesses of music publishing and instrument building. In order to extend the recorder’s musical range, the bore of many smaller recorders in the first half of the seventeenth century featured a “choke” or narrowing near the lowest finger hole. (See Anthony van Dyck’s painting Lucas van Uffel, 14.40.619, which includes a seventeenth-century-style recorder as one of the possessions of a cultured gentleman.) The instrument’s wider range, along with the early Baroque interest in virtuosity, is particularly demonstrated in Der Fluyten Lust-hof, an enormous mid-seventeenth-century collection for soprano recorder of virtuosic variations on popular tunes improvised by the blind Dutch carillonneur Jacob van Eyck (1589/90–1657).

The recorder in this period was associated in opera and art with pastoral and erotic themes (for example, respectively, Georges de La Tour’s Adoration of the Shepherds at the Louvre, Paris; Titian’s Venus and the Lute Player (36.29); and Caravaggio’s Musicians, 52.81). Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643), among several Italian early opera composers, specified the recorder for a number of scenes in his Arcadian opera Orfeo (1607), incidentally, the earliest known writing for recorder with basso continuo. Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–1687), Henry Purcell (1659–1695), and, a bit later, Georg Frideric Handel (1685–1759) included it in several vocal and stage works to symbolize lamentation, death, and the supernatural, as well as the pastoral.

The Recorder in the Late Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries
In the second half of the seventeenth century, the recorder, along with the transverse flute, oboe, and bassoon, underwent a redesign that radically altered its capabilities, ushering in what we think of as the truly Baroque recorder. This revolution, occurring simultaneously in Italy, France, and elsewhere in Europe, resulted in a recorder with a tapering or conical bore, which required constructing the instrument in three sections or joints. In addition, recorders were adorned with decorative Baroque turnings, which strengthened the joints. The new design gave the upper register of the recorder’s range of two octaves and a step more brilliance and reliability.

While the recorder continued to be built in various sizes for various purposes through the first half of the eighteenth century, by 1690 the alto in F’ had emerged as the primary recorder, equivalent as soloist to the flute, oboe, or violin; it was avidly embraced by musical amateurs as well as professional wind players who doubled on recorder. The alto in F’ is the recorder for which Handel, Johann Mattheson (1681–1764), Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767), Alessandro Scarlatti (1660–1725), Benedetto Marcello (1686–1739), and Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741) wrote solo sonatas and chamber works with basso continuo accompaniment, and which Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) specified for his second and fourth Brandenburg Concertos and several cantatas, including BWV 106. Vivaldi also composed highly virtuosic concertos for both alto in F’ (as did Telemann) and sopranino in F”. The Museum’s elaborately carved ivory alto recorder in F’ by Johann Benedikt Gahn (active 1674–1711; 89.4.909), who specialized in ivory wind instruments, was an expensive and relatively rare commodity, fit mainly for a wealthy music lover. In contrast, the Museum’s boxwood recorder by Johann Wilhelm Oberlender the Elder (1681–1763; 89.4.2208) is more simply decorated with horn and Baroque-style turning, a more typical instrument on which a sonata by Telemann might be played. Like Gahn, Oberlender lived in Nuremberg, an important center of instrument building at this time.

The recorder gained particular popularity among amateurs in early eighteenth-century England after the French instrument builder Peter (Jaillard) Bressan moved to London, where he flourished from 1688 to 1730. The fourth flute in B-flat’, a recorder so called because it is pitched a fourth above the alto in F’, was the recorder favored by the transplanted French composer Charles Dieupart (ca. 1667–ca. 1740), who also worked in London. The Museum’s beautiful ebony and ivory soprano by Thomas Boekhout (1666–1715; 89.4.912) may be an example of such an instrument. Many eighteenth-century examples of the more familiar soprano in C”, tenor in C’, and bass in F by makers from all over western Europe are also extant.

Among the finest recorder makers to follow Peter Bressan was Londoner Thomas Stanesby Jr. (1692–1754). A few of his recorders, perhaps in response to the growing popularity of the transverse flute by the 1720s, feature foot joints that resembled the tapering end of the flute; the Stanesby alto in F’ (1982.390) is such an instrument. In 1732, Stanesby had argued for the adoption of his tenor recorder in C’ as a worthy rival to the flute’s increasing musical hegemony among professional performers. With larger instrumental ensembles and concert halls, the flute prevailed by mid-century, due to its greater ability to project, and its greater range and dynamic capabilities, becoming a regular member of the classical orchestra. The recorder was left an antiquarian curiosity until its rebirth in the early twentieth century, leading to perhaps its most important historic era.

Wendy Powers
Independent Scholar

October 2003


Powers, Wendy. “The Development of the Recorder.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2003)

Additional Essays by Wendy Powers