Surviving specimens

It was long thought that the only surviving, more or less complete, medieval musical instrument conforming to the definition of a recorder given above was the ‘Dordrecht Recorder’, held in the musical instrument collection of the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague (#544045) until 2009 when it was removed to the Dordrecht Museum (inventory number 4001.000.008). It is currently on permanent display at Het Hof van Nederland, Dordrecht.

Dordrecht recorder
Dordrecht Recorder

An account of the circumstances of its discovery has been given by the sometime curator of that collection, Dr Clemens von Gleich (in Weber 1976). Further details have been provided by the current curator, Rob van Acht (reported by Rowland-Jones 1996: 17) , by Hijmans (2015) and by Hijmans et al. (2016). Briefly, the Dordrecht Recorder was excavated from a well (not a moat) at the Huis te Merwede (House on the Merwede) about 3 km east of the town of Dordrecht, Holland. Founded in the first quarter of the fourteenth century, this castle was the residence of a wealthy Dutch family from 1335. An assault in 1418 and the devastating effects of the St Elizabeth Flood of 1421 and another in 1423 put an end to the existence of the castle. Not until the nineteenth century was the area lying around the castle drained. Part of its moat was excavated in 1940 revealing some 30 objects, including a recorder.

Thus, two circumstances in connection with the Dordrecht recorder are extremely fortunate. Firstly, on account of the short period during which the castle was inhabited (1335–1418) the dating of the instrument’s deposition in the moat seems to fall within clear limits. Secondly, the recorder has remained submerged, untouched until its excavation. Furthermore, the well in which it was found was built during the second phase of construction of the house, shortly before the mid-14th century. Bouterse (1995) notes that this instrument is possibly a few centuries older than that suggested above. However, Hakelberg (1995: 11) argues that it is rather unlikely that the Dordrecht instrument dates from the thirteenth century, since the written sources show that the donjon was built in the first quarter of the fourteenth century, and there is no archaeological evidence of an earlier medieval settlement on the site.

A comprehensive description of the Dordrecht recorder was provided by Weber (1976). Further details are given by Fitzpatrick (1975), Carlick (1975), Reiners (1997), Hijmans (2015) and Hijmans et al. (2016). The instrument is in good condition and is not imperiled. Its external outline is cylindrical. It is made of close-grained fruit-wood, possibly plum-wood. Its vibrating air column is cylindrical, 275 mm long (measured over the external curve of the instrument), and the internal bore is 12.3 mm at the most. The block is cylindrical and projects 3.5 mm into the mouth of the instrument. The cut-up of the mouth is 7.5 mm high and its ears are splayed outwards. The windway floor is quite flat. The seven finger holes are widely spaced, a function of the narrow, cylindrical bore. The lowest finger hole is doubled to allow playing by right- or left-handed players, the hole not in use being plugged. Both ends of the instrument are turned to form tenons, the one at the upper end with two external, circumferential grooves. The mouthpiece is truncated rather than beak-shaped. The lower tenon is slightly tapered. Due to damage to the lip of the recorder, it cannot be sounded.

A second more or less complete medieval recorder dating from the fourteenth century, the ‘Göttingen Recorder’, has been reported from northern Germany where it was found in a latrine in Weender Strasser 26, Göttingen, in 1987.

Göttingen Recorder

Now part of the collection at the Sammlung des Musikwissenschaftlichen Seminars der Universität Göttingen, it has been described by Hakelberg (1995), Hakelberg and Arndt (1994) Homo-Lechner (1996), Reiners (1997) and Doht (2006). More recently, it has been CT scanned by the Institut für Medizinische Physik der Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (Kalender et al., 2009). The instrument is in one piece and has vents for seven fingers and a thumb hole. The seventh hole, for the little finger of the lower hand, is doubled. The instrument is 256 mm long and is also made of fruitwood (a species of Prunus). Its beak is severely damaged, which probably explains why it was discarded. It’s bore has a diameter of 13.6 mm at the highest measurable point. There are narrowings of the bore to 13.2 mm between the first and second finger holes, to 12.7–12.8 mm between the second and third finger holes, and a marked contraction to 11.5 mm behind the seventh (doubled) hole. The bore expands to 14.5 mm at the bottom of the instrument which has a distinctive bulbous foot. Curiously, the finger holes are widened toward the exterior rather than undercut; this is clearly visible in the CT scans (Kalender et al., 2009).

Hakelberg (2002 & pers. comm. 2003) reports that a third fourteenth-century recorder fragment, the ‘Esslingen Recorder’, has very recently come to light. It was found near Stuttgart, Southern Germany, where it was excavated from the sediment of the mill channel of the Karmeliter-Monastery, Esslingen.

Esslingen Recorder

Hakelberg is of the opinion that the broken light coloured fragment is of boxwood, the better preserved of fruitwood (length c. 25.5 cm), with holes for the thumb and five fingers. Unfortunately, during conservation ca 10 cm of the instrument has been lost. Interestingly, it shows the very same characteristic turning profile as the Göttingen recorder. These fragments are preserved in the Landesdenkmalamt Baden-Württemberg, Stuttgart.

A fourth fourteenth-century recorder has been found during an archaeological dig in August 2005 by Andres Tvauri in Tartu, Estonia near the border with Russia (Tvauri and Bernotas 2005, Tvauri and Utt 2007, Utt 2006), now preserved in the Tartu Linnamuseum

Tartu Recorder

Like both the Göttingen and Esslingen instruments, the ‘Tartu Recorder’ was also found in a latrine in the backyard of 15 Üikooli Street. Other artifacts found with the Tartu recorder allow it to be dated from the second half of the fourteenth century. During the late medieval period Tartu was an important Hanseatic city connecting Russia, especially Novgorod, with Western Europe. The house where the recorder was found seems to have been that of a wealthy person. The head of the instrument is turned with ornamental rings. The only crack is at the foot of the instrument and does not extend into to the bore. The body of the Tartu recorder is made from maple; the block from birch. The total length is 246.7 mm and the sounding length 225.4 mm. Thus, the instrument is of similar size to a modern sopranino at 440 Hz. Utt notes that in its current state it has a compass of ninth, but due to shrinkage and damage to the voicing this may represent a reduced range. Amongst the artifacts found with the recorder was a fourteenth-century stoneware jug which originated in Southern Lower Saxony, presumably imported in the Hanseatic trade. It is reasonable to conjecture that the instrument might also be of North German origin.

The fragment of a fifth possible medieval recorder, is preserved in the Mainfrankisches Museum at Würzburg in Germany (#50779) and has been dated between 1200 and 1300 (Moeck 1967). This instrument was also found during an archaeological excavation. It was discovered in a well and dates from the fourteenth century. However, only the bottom part of the instrument has survived. Kunkel (1953) and Weber (1976) have described this fragment in considerable detail. It also is made of fruitwood (again, a species of Prunus). In its bore and the size and disposition of its finger holes it corresponds closely to the Dordrecht recorder. A curious feature of the Würzburg fragment is the presence of a small lateral hole just above the end of the bore. A shallow external groove is inscribed around the circumference of the fragment near the end of the bore. A crack runs through the lateral hole. Hakelberg (1995: 11) argues that this fragment cannot be identified with complete certainty as part of a recorder and that it could well be part of a reed-pipe instrument.

A sixth possible medieval recorder has been reported by Jack Campin of Edinburgh (pers. comm., 2005). This is a bone flute in the Museum of the Palace of the Knights of St John at Rhodes, tucked away inaccessibly in a rarely-opened glass case. The head is missing, but it is probably a duct flute, as reed instruments were more likely to be made of cane. Campin writes that it has “holes in the usual recorderish places, including the thumb hole; it looks very much like my Susato G sopranino”. The Knights were at Rhodes from 1309 to 1522, before they withdrew to Malta in the face of the advancing Ottomans. This bone-flute has not yet been more closely dated; it is possible that it could be before 1400 (Rowland-Jones 2006: 14). In the late fourteenth century, and well into the fifteenth century, there were cultivated Aragonese courts with musical establishments in Cyprus and Sicily that the Knights would almost certainly have visited. But as Campin remarks, this fragment could have originated anywhere from Portugal to the Ukraine.

A seventh medieval recorder has been found in a latrine in the old Hanseatic city Elblag (in former times Elbing) southeast from Danzig in Poland (Naumann 1999, Kirnbauer and Young 2001, Kirnbauer 2002, Poplawska 2014). This instrument is intact and has been dated to the mid-fifteenth century. It is made of maple in one-piece 30 cm long and appears to have a vibrating air column of 27 cm. Like the Dordrecht, Göttingen and Tartu recorders, the Elblag recorder lacks the beak-shaped mouth-piece characteristic of the modern instrument. Carefully worked details of this recorder, including undercut finger holes and the edge of the labium point to a professional maker. This is supported by the presence of a maker’s mark in the form of a circle with a central dot burned in the top of the instrument, a feature unique to this instrument. As with the other surviving late medieval recorders, the lowest interval of the Elblag recorder seems to have been a semitone. It was thus likely to have been pitched around d’, a tone higher than a modern soprano recorder.

Mateusz Lacki (pers. comm. 2011) reports that an eighth medieval recorder found after the Second World War in a latrine in the city of Nysa in Silesia, Poland, dates from the fourteenth century. It is housed in the Muzeum w Nysie. The instrument, made from elderwood, is ca 27 cm long. Although the block is missing, details of the window and labium are unmistakable. The blowing end of the instrument is truncate rather than beaked. It has single holes for seven fingers as well as the usual thumb hole. Again, the lowest interval of the Nysa recorder seems to have been a semitone.

In earlier times moats, mill-channels and wells were probably all pretty putrid and not so different from latrines. Thus, it is tempting to give significance to the observation that five of the surviving unequivocal medieval recorders described above were found in such foul places, where they may have been discarded. However, the key fact linking these finds is surely not scatological, nor is it that the instrument were all discarded (a mere surmise, although there is convincing evidence that this was the case with the Dordrecht Recorder). It is simply that all these environments involve water which allows wooden articles to survive for long periods.

These transitional instruments certainly represent a divergent branch from the flageolet lineage leading to the recorder as we understand it today. Anthony Rowland-Jones (2014) has argued that rather than accepting these 14th-century relics to be recorders they should be viewed simply as improved flageolets with an extension by means of an additional finger hole to give a leading note in the lower octave, a thumb hole to provide a stronger and more easily played middle tonic rather than using the awkward -23 456 fingering of the six-holed pipe. However,  the home key of these instruments remained with six fingers down. Rowland-Jones  further conjectures that it was not until the later decades of the 14th century that some makers hit upon the idea of raising the pitch of the fourth by about a quarter-tone. This enabled accidentals to be played with acceptable tone quality by putting two fingers down below an open hole in the lower octave, and by one finger in the upper octave. If the placing of the little-finger hole, and the bore profile, were then modified to give an interval of a whole tone, a tonic could then be played with seven fingers down. At the expense of the flageolet’s agility and two-octave compass, a chromatic duct flute came into being which could play along with a singer. The very portable recorder would have been an obvious aid to learning, rehearsing and even performing vocal music. Eventually, with three instruments, the piece could be repeated (‘recorded’ ) to give the singers a rest and a change of sound for the listeners.

In this context, I note that an interesting instrument which might be intermediate between the transitional recorders described above and the six-holed pipe was excavated in 1939 in  Randers, Denmark (Kulturhistorisk Museum Randers, No. 5816). This is a bone duct flute made from the tibia of a sheep. It has  a quadrangular window and a slightly curved labium, six finger holes, and a rear thumb hole above the frontal holes. Its date is uncertain, but has been placed between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries by the museum (Müller et al. 1972: 40). This points to an overlap of this kind of modified 6-holed pipe with the early recorder.

References cited on this page

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Cite this article as: Lander, Nicholas S. 1996–2022. Recorder Home Page: A memento: the medieval recorder: Surviving specimens. Last accessed 20 May 2022.