1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Recorder (music)

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RECORDER, Fipple Flute or English Flute (Fr. flûte-à-bec, flûte douce, flûte anglaise or flûte à neuf trous; Ger. Block- or Plockflöte, Schnabelflöte, Langflöte; Ital. flauto dolce, flauto diritto), a medieval flute, blown by means of a whistle mouthpiece and held vertically in front of the performer like a clarinet. The recorder only survives in the now almost obsolete flageolet and in the so-called penny-whistle. The recorder consisted of a wooden tube, which was at first cylindrical or nearly so, but became, as the instrument developed and improved, an inverted cone. The whistle mouthpiece has been traced in almost prehistoric times in Egypt and other Oriental countries. The principle of the whistle mouthpiece is based on that of the simplest flutes without embouchure, like the Egyptian nay, with this modification, that, in order to facilitate the production of sound, the air current, instead of being directed through ambient air to the sharp edge of the tube (or the lateral embouchure in the modern flute), is blown through a chink directly into a narrow channel. This channel is so constructed within the mouthpiece that the stream of air impinges with force against the sharp edge of a lip or fipple cut into the pipe below the channel. This throws the air current into the state of vibration required in order to generate sound-waves in the main column of air within the tube. The inverted cone of the bore has the effect of softening the tone of the recorder still further, earning for it the name of flûte douce. Being so easy to play, the recorder always enjoyed great popularity in all countries until the greater possibilities of the transverse flute turned the tide against it. The want of character which distinguishes the timbre of the whistle-flute is due to the paucity of harmonic overtones in the clang. The recorder had seven holes in front and one at the back for the thumb. As long as the tube was made in one piece the lowest hole stopped by the little finger was generally made in duplicate to serve equally well for right- and left-handed players, the unused hole being stopped with wax. Being an open pipe, the recorder could overblow the octave and even the two following harmonics (i.e. the twelfth and second octave). The holes produced the diatonic scale, and by means of harmonics and cross-fingering the second and part of a third octave were obtained.

The recorder is described and figured by Sebastian Virdung, Martin Agricola and Ottmar Luscinius in the 16th century, and by Michael Praetorius and Marin Mersenne in the 17th century. Praetorius mentions eight different sizes ranging from the small flute two octaves above the cornetto to the great bass. The lowest notes of the large flutes were provided with keys enclosed in perforated wooden or brass cases, which served to protect the mechanism, as yet somewhat primitive; the keys usually had double touch pieces to suit right- or left-handed players.

There are at least two fine sets of recorders extant: one is preserved in the Germanisches Museum at Nuremberg, consisting of eight flutes in a case and dating from the 17th century; the other is the Chester set of four 18th-century instruments, which are fully-described and illustrated in a paper by Joseph C. Bridge.[1]

The recorder has been immortalized by Shakespeare in the famous scene in Hamlet (II. 3), which has been treated from the musical point of view in an excellent and carefully written article by Christopher Welch, the author of an equally valuable paper, “The Literature of the Recorder.”[2]

The small whistle-pipe used to accompany the tabor (Fr. galoubet; Ger. Stamentienpfeiff or Schwegel), which had but three holes, belongs to the same family as the recorder, but from its association with the tabor it acquired distinctive characteristics (see Pipe and Tabor). (K. S.)


  1. “The Chester Recorders” in Proc. Mus. Assoc., London, 1901.
  2. “Hamlet and the Recorder,” ibid., 1902 and 1898.