Angels playing recorders appear in late medieval stained glass windows in churches. The earliest known reference to the instrument comes from the household account of Henry, Earl of Derby, later King Henry IV of England. In a 1388 entry of payments, there is a reference to “a pipe called a recorder.”
The recorder is a woodwind instrument with seven finger holes and a thumbhole. It is a very old instrument and figured prominently in Renaissance and Baroque music.
During the Renaissance, the recorder was played in consorts and not as a solo instrument. The recorder often appeared with pavans, galliards and other dances. It was played with string and percussion instruments at the courts of kings and nobles and by groups of amateurs. By the end of the Renaissance, a number of books on recorder technique had been published.
During the late 17th century, the Baroque recorder appeared in France. It was narrower than the Renaissance recorder, with a greater musical range and standardized pitch. The recorder figured prominently in the music of Henry Purcell, Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Philipp Telemann, Antonio Vivaldi and George Frideric Handel. It was very popular in England, France, Germany and Italy.
The recorder went out of fashion in the late 18th century with the development of the orchestra and the concert hall. Other woodwind instruments like the flute were louder and had greater control over pitch and tone. In the late 19th century, however, the recorder began its revival as a popular instrument.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, the recorder has been played primarily on three levels: as a school instrument; as an instrument for playing medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music; and as an instrument suitable for jazz and other forms of modern music. Most recorders today are based on those built during the 18th century.
Dutch recorder virtuoso Frans Brüggen did more than any modern player to elevate the recorder to the level of other instruments and make it a popular consort instrument once again. Today, the recorder is played all over the world. In addition, composers are creating new music for the recorder.
In the United States, the recorder has been promoted by the American Recorder Society; by performers such as Shelley Gruskin, Gwyn Roberts and John Tyson; and by a growing interest in Renaissance and Baroque music. Today, the recorder is taught in musical academies and colleges and universities and appears frequently in performances of early music.