A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Recorder

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RECORDER. An instrument of the flute family, now obsolete. Much fruitless ingenuity has been exercised as to the etymology of the name; a specimen of which may be seen in the Pictorial Edition of Shakespeare, on the passage in Hamlet, Act iii, Sc. 2. The English verb 'to record' may be referred to the Latin root Cor. 'Recordare Jesu pie' forms the opening of one of the hymns of the ancient church, embodied in the requiem or funeral mass. Here it has simply the sense of 'to remember'[1] or 'to take note of'—a signification which has descended to the modern words Records and Recorder. But there was evidently from early times a parallel meaning of 'to sing, chant,' or 'to warble like birds.' This appears plainly in the beautiful passage of Shakespeare[2]

To the lute
She sang and made the night-bird mute
That still records with moan.

'To record,' says an old writer, 'among fowlers, is when the bird begins to tune or sing within itself.'

It is possibly from this that the name of the instrument is derived. In any case it appears in one of the 'proverbis' written about Henry VII.'s time on the walls of the manor house at Leckingfield. It is there said to 'desire' the mean part, 'but manifold fingering and stops bringeth high notes from its clear tones.' In the catalogue of instruments left by Henry VIII. are Recorders of box, oak, and ivory, great and small, two base Recorders of walnut, and one great base Recorder.

The passage in Hamlet referring to the instrument (Act iii. Sc. 2), is well known, and in the Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare says: 'He hath played on his prologue like a child on a recorder.' Sir Philip Sidney describes how 'the shepherds, pulling out recorders, which possessed the place of pipes, accorded their music to the others' voice.' Bacon, in the Sylva Sylvarum, Century III. 221, goes at length into the mechanism of the instrument. He says it is straight, and has a lesser and a greater bore both above and below; that it requires very little breath from the blower, and that it has what he calls a 'fipple' or stopper. He adds that 'the three uppermost holes yield one tone, which is a note lower than the tone of the first three.' This last paragraph begets a suspicion that the learned writer was not practically acquainted with the method of playing this instrument. Milton[3] speaks of

The Dorian mood
Of flutes and soft recorders.

But the most definite information we possess as to the instrument is derived from two similar works published respectively in 1683 and 1686. The former is named 'The Genteel Companion, being exact directions for the Recorder, with a collection of the best and newest tunes and grounds extant. Carefully composed and gathered by Humphrey Salter, London. Printed for Richard Hunt and Humphrey Salter at the Lute in St. Paul's Churchyard, 1683.' The latter is entitled 'The delightful Companion, or choice New Lessons for the Recorder or Flute, etc. London: printed for John Playford at his shop near the Temple Church, and for John Carr at his shop at the Middle Temple Gate 1686. Second edition corrected.'

The first of these works has a frontispiece showing a lady and gentleman sitting at a table, with two music books; the gentleman, with his legs gracefully crossed, is playing a recorder. The lower end rests on his knee, and the flageolet-shaped mouthpiece at the top end is between his lips. The book describes the peculiarity of the instrument, from which Mr. Chappell considers the name to have been derived—namely, a hole situated in the upper part, between the mouthpiece and the top hole for the fingers, and apparently covered with thin bladder, or what is now termed 'goldbeater's skin,' with a view of affecting the quality of tone. Two scales or gamuts are given in the usual G clef, the former containing 13, the other 16 notes. The lowest note in both cases is F, and the highest is D in the first case, and G in the second.
{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \cadenzaOn f'4 \bar "||" d''' g''' \bar "||" s }
There is no evidence of any keys for producing semitones, which are shown by the scales to have been obtained by cross-fingering. The keys in which the tunes are set comprise C, with G, D and A on the sharp side, F and B♭ on the flat side.

The edition of 'The delightful Companion' printed three years later gives very explicitly the number of holes, but omits mention of the closed intermediate orifice. It will be remarked that 'Recorder' and 'Flute' are used synonymously on this title-page. 'Observe', says the writer, 'there is eight holes upon the pipe, viz. seven before, and one underneath which we call the uppermost, and is to be stopped with your thumb, the next with your forefinger,' etc. Cross-fingerings are here also given to produce the first two or there intermediate semitones on either side of the natural key.

Mr. Chappell quotes the late Mr. Ward as his authority for having seen 'old English flutes' with a hole bored through the side in the upper part of the instrument, and covered with a thin piece of skin. An English Recorder of the 17th century was shown in the Loan Exhibition of Musical Instruments at South Kensington. It was 26 inches in length agreeing well with the frontispiece of the Genteel Companion and therefore not at all like the little pipe usually brought on the stage in Hamlet. Near the top, about an inch from the mouth-hole, it was furnished with a hole covered with thin bladder as above described.

[ W. H. S. ]


  1. Compare the expression, 'to get by 'heart.'
  2. Pericles, Act. iv.
  3. Paradise Lost, i. 550.