A brief history of the recorder

You’ll hear me say that the recorder has history pretty often, but unless you know what kind of history, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s just another person who’s passionate about what they do blowing hot air! Well, today I am giving you some of that history.

~ Fipple ~ Image courtesy Wikipedia
~ Fipple ~
Image courtesy Wikipedia

Recorders are known as a member of the fipple flute family. Instruments in this family force a column of air to vibrate within the instrument via a mouthpiece that forces air past a “fipple” or block inside the instrument. The person playing the instrument has to use their lips, closing the opening to form a tight seal, or the air doesn’t vibrate at the correct frequency to produce the desired pitch(note or tone).

Fipple flutes include tin whistles, recorders, flageolets, and the pipes of pipe organs. But nearly every culture has a history of using some sort of flute with a fipple in it. Native American flutes work this way, and so do ancient bone flutes that have been found in archeological digs, dating back tens of thousands of years. When I say that this is one of the oldest types of instruments in the world, I’m not just saying that because I love the recorder!

A fairly complex flute found in the La Roque region of France dates back about 30,000 years, the British Museum shows a fantastic picture, the one on the left is the La Roque flute. This instrument would have been played just like a modern recorder, by blowing into one end of the flute! As time went on, our cultures across the world used fipple flutes in all their variations, creating music that was unique to the area.

Fast forward to the 12th century, and you’ll find the recorder very popular

11th century stone pillar in the church at Boubon-l'Achambault, St George, France
11th century stone pillar in the church at Boubon-l’Achambault, St George, France

with a form very similar to modern recorders. The mouthpiece was the biggest difference, it wasn’t “ergonomically shaped” with the beaked end we have now. The name is believed to be a derivative of the Italian ricordare especiale”, which means to remember. If you remember how much easier it is to pass on knowledge by song than by words alone, it makes sense. Music and poetry was the primary way that knowledge was shared up to recent times. Literacy wasn’t always the high priority it is now.

No one really knows how or when the recorder developed it’s modern form, but most likely the trade going between different countries in Europe helped carry newer ideas between regions, and at some point what is known as the Baroque Recorder hit the stage. This is the recorder in it’s modern form! It hasn’t had the continuing development since that time period because the louder brass and other orchestral instruments gained popularity, pushing the recorder into the dark reaches of history. But one thing is for sure – it’s a history worth knowing!

Sources:

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/06/090624-bone-flute-oldest-instrument_2.html

http://www.classicol.com/classical.cfm?music=instrumentInfo&section=WoodwindHistory&title=Woodwind+Family+History

http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pe_prb/b/bone_flutes.aspx