Saturday, November 16, 2013

Recorders in the Renaissance

Shakespeare mentions the recorder in Hamlet p. 80 (or act 3, scene 2, lines 351-380).  Hamlet uses them to mock Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's efforts to influence him.

I noticed these lines because for the last couple of weeks I have been spending a lot of time learning and playing the recorder part for Benjamin Britten's (whom Megan mentioned in the music presentation) Noye's Fludde, whose name derives from a 15th century English play.  The recorder is a fipple flute.  In a typical (transverse) flute, the air is blown directly across some edge, and the separation of the airstream creates the sound; in a fipple flute, however, air is blown into a mouthpiece (the fipple), which then directs the air across the edge that creates the sound.  This results in a much easier instrument with a very steady sound, since the air always hits at the same angle, hence Shakespeare's description of the recorder as "easy as lying." Meanwhile, in a transverse flute the player can change the direction of the airstream, giving him or her more control but also more opportunity to mess up.  The recorder has a very simple fingering system consisting simply of holes bored in the instrument, which makes them relatively easy to make but also gives them a small range and makes certain notes difficult to play in tune.

Recorders were invented in the middle ages, but had their heyday in the Renaissance as composers started to write music for instruments (as opposed to medieval plainchant) and composition was more informed by folk music.  Due to their popularity in the Renaissance, recorders were built in a large variety of sizes, ranging from bassoon-like instruments to recorders smaller than modern soprano recorders.  Here is a recording of an Italian piece from the late 16th century:


While modern recorder pieces tend to use the instrument to evoke a rustic flute sound, in the Renaissance they tried to make them sound more like voices.  Modern recorders have a tapered bore, like a piccolo, that gives them some interesting harmonics; Renaissance recorders had straight bores that gave them a plainer sound.  You can definitely hear how this composer simply took the techniques for vocal music and changed the range to fit a recorder choir.

1 comment:

Samantha Gillen said...

I learned how to play the recorder at my hurricane school. It was actually required that all students learn how to play the recorder. At the end of the year, we were all forced to play in a concert. If you can imagine a bunch of uninterested 4th graders trying to play the recorder that they hadn't touched since they first picked them up at the beginning of the year try to play all together, not to mention that recorders aren't the most beautiful sounding instruments... It was a massive headache to say the least.
Some other useful knowledge, though, then my 4th grade experience :) is that many other instruments were used during the Renaissance period such as the bagpipe, harp, harpsichord, and lute. People played some weird sounding instruments such as the dulcian, lizard, kortholt, and sacbut.