If you went to school in the early 1970s, you probably have horrible memories of the recorder as an instrument of mediaeval torture. But in the hands of a skilled musician the recorder is a complex instrument capable of great beauty and subtlety, perhaps the nearest thing to the human voice in its emotional range.
Mediaeval, renaissance and baroque musicians knew this very well. King Henry IV, when he was still Earl of Derby in 1388, played the “Recordour” (the earliest use of the name); and Italian musician Sylvestro Ganassi wrote an instruction manual for it in 1535, stressing the skill of improvisation – being able to make up music on the spot around a theme or an existing piece – as a mark of accomplishment.
The Elizabethan broken consort was a mixture of different instruments – blown, plucked and bowed – played together, and would often include a virtuoso part for the recorder. As with other instruments in the renaissance, it came in a range of sizes and pitches and so the recorder consort developed, with no less a musician than William Byrd composing for it.
Recorder playing La Rotta, anon., Italy, c.1390