Primitive signal-pipes and whistles date back to Upper Palaeolithic times (Megaw 1963). Amongst, the world’s oldest musical instruments is a 24,000 year-old duct-flute from France, made from the bone of a vulture found in the 1920′s (Hamer 1996). Bone flutes, about 32,000 years old are known from Les Roches and La Roque, Dordogne, France. The later, date from the Paleolithic (Perigordian) and were made by fully modern people like ourselves whose cave paintings, sculpture and jewellery also date from this period (British Museum, 2001). An almost complete bone flute recently found at Hohle Fels has been dated as far back as 35,000 years (Seifert 2009). More controversial is the claim that this may be pushed back to at least 43,000 and possibly as far as 82,000 years ago by the discovery in Slovenia of a putative Neanderthal flute made from a femur bone of a bear cub (Fink 1997, Otte 2000), although this interpretation has been rejected by Chase & Nowell (1998).
Excavations at the early Neolithic site of Jiahu in the Henan Province, China, have produced six complete vertical flutes made from the ulnae of the red-crowned crane which, curiously, have variously 5, 6, 7 and 8 holes. On one of these 9,000-year-old flutes which has holes for 7 fingers, that for the lowermost finger is doubled with a very small vent immediately above the main hole. Indeed the latter instrument can actually be sounded and thus represents the world’s oldest playable musical instrument (Fountain 1999; Zhang et al. 1999; Castellano 2000). Note that these are all end-blown flutes rather than duct-flutes. For a photograph and sound files, click here.
More internal-duct-flutes (sensu Picken 1975) have survived from the Middle Ages than any other kind of musical instrument (Munrow 1976). Crane (1972) lists no less than 140 of them in a great variety of forms. Moeck (1967) has also produced a comprehensive survey.
The recorder (as distinct from six-holed pipes, flageolets and other folk whistles) is an internal-duct-flute with holes for seven fingers and a thumb-hole which serves as an octaving vent. It is generally assumed that the development of the recorder as such from its simpler, six-holed ancestor was the result of a search for a stronger tone richer in fundamentals (Hunt 1977). However, Brown (1995: 22, footnote 8) argues that the recorder was a remarkable innovation in duct-flute design, for the complication of having to use two more holes, including a thumb-hole, did not result in any increase in the instrument’s range or improvement in its tone — what it achieved was that high notes could be played more softly ‘, a view echoed by Rowland-Jones (1996, 1999b).
Although more or less cylindrical-bore recorders are generally louder than similarly sized pipes by virtue of their wider bore and greater cross-sectional area of the windway, the useful range of at least some reconstructions of medieval recorders, including those made by Fitzpatrick, Carlick, Miller & Anderson is limited to an octave and a sixth. On the other hand, reconstructions of medieval recorders by Bartram, Hanchet and Reiners play over a range of two or more octaves, though the latter departs markedly from a cylindrical bore (Reiners 1997: 33). Doubtless much would depend on the skill of the maker and even the player. However, the fact remains that a six-holed pipe can easily ascend two octaves with very little effort necessary on the part of either maker or player, and need be neither unduly shrill nor lacking in volume.
Surely of far more value would be the sheer number of novel fingerings opened up by the addition of an extra finger-hole and thumb-hole which, whilst creating an instrument with possibly decreased range, made the recorder a truly chromatic instrument. The six-holed pipe, even in its modern form (the Irish whistle or faedog), is essentially a diatonic instrument. Thus Tuschner (1983) has more convincingly discussed the transition from woodwind instruments with six upper fingerholes into those with seven (including the recorder) in the light of the tetrachord system of the Musica enchiriadis and the later Guidonian hexachord system.
Cite this article as: Lander, N.S. (1996—2014). A memento: the medieval recorder. Last accessed Tuesday, March 11th, 2014. http://www.recorderhomepage.net/medieval.html/