The early history of the recorder is, at best, short on details and leaves quite a bit to be desired. It is only through surviving written accounts and instruments that we can begin to put a picture together. Admittedly, the evidence is comparable to an out-of-focus black and white photograph; a curious look at the past yet frustrating in that it asks more questions than gives answers.
Let’s begin with what’s known…
At some point during the 14th Century, the recorder was either invented or imported into Europe (the jury’s still out on this one). The earliest painting that depicts the instrument comes from late 14th Century Spain. Around the same time, the English word “recorder” is written in some of the accounts of the Earl of Derby, later known as Henry IV. He’d apparently purchased one in London…
The word “recorder” comes from the English verb that means to remember for yourself or for someone else. The instrument did not exist on its own as much as it was associated with the people who played it. These minstrels, as they were called, were professional relaters, “rememberers” if you will, who would recall music and then perform it. Now, what they played is another story altogether.
Of the surviving medieval recorders, the earliest have little similarity. They come from different parts of Northern Europe and, again, ask more questions than they answer.
As far as looking at what kinds of music recorder players performed, there is more evidence once we get into the 15th Century. Dances, chansons of different varieties, as well as sacred polyphony made up the varied repertoire of the professional minstrel.
A medieval relative of the recorder:
The recorder wasn’t the only type of duct flute known (or blown) in the middle ages. The pipe and tabor precedes the recorder in medieval historical accounts by at least a century. It would be unfair if we didn’t mention one of our modern day pipe and tabor virtuosos, Poul Høbro. Høbro is joined by vocalists Agnethe Christensen and Miriam Andersen in Ensemble Alba, which performed music of the Danish Middle Ages on the 2000 CD release, Die Tenschen Morder.
Our new release of the week is by the Baltimore Consort and comes from the Dorian/Sono Luminus label. It is, in fact, a compilation of previous recordings by the ensemble, which has now released some of their favorite tracks.
Here’s a video of Ensemble Unicorn performing a brief excerpt from “Belicha,” an anonymous dance from the Middle Ages:
Here’s early flutist Pierre Hamon performing on the pipe and tabor: