Baroque vs. Renaissance Recorders

Baroque versus Renaissance

There exist two families of recorders, the Baroque and the Renaissance.  The Baroque recorder is the standard model that most people are aware of.  It is a more refined instrument with a clearer sound and a larger range.  The Renaissance instruments are earthier in tone and generally only have a range of an octave and a half.  It is possible for a bandestrator to specify the use of either Baroque or Renaissance, but chances are that it will just be played upon the Baroque anyway.

An ensemble of all Renaissance recorders with the highest instrument being the Bass Recorder (4 Bass Recorders, 4 Great Bass Recorders, 3 Contrabass Recorders, and 1 Sub-Contrabass Recorder)

A quartet of Tenor, Bass, and 2 Great Bass Recorders all on Baroque instruments

Subcontrabass Recorder

Sub-Contrabass Recorders

Sub-Contrabass Recorder range

At the far bottom end of the recorder family are two monstrous recorders pitched an octave below the Great Bass and Contrabass respectively.  There is no set universal name for these two rare beasts.  The instrument in C an octave below the Great Bass is sometimes called a Sub-Contrabass or a Contra Great Bass, while the instrument in F, the largest of all recorders, is either the Double Contrabass or the Sub-Subcontrabass.  Both of these instruments are extremely rare, though not out of the question for groups such as large recorder ensembles or orchestras.  In a band, the texture would have to be the most transparent the bandestrator could possibly make it in order for either of these voices to be heard.

A Sub-Contrabass in an ensemble (note, this ensemble comprises of 2 Altos, 2 Tenors, 1 Bass, 2 Great Basses, 2 Contrabasses, and 1 Sub-Contrabass)

Contrabass Recorder

Contrabass Recorder

Contrabass Recorder range

This instrument is pitched an octave below the Bass Recorder.  It is rarer than the Great Bass, and like the Great Bass it is not available in an inexpensive plastic form.  That said, they are valuable instruments in the recorder consort and can make fine additions to any wind group.  The sound of these instruments is very akin to that of diapason pipes on a grand Pipe Organ.  Their sound is very breathy.    Despite their name, these instruments are not as low as you would think.

Most Contrabass Recorders can only be played standing up.

A demonstration of a Contrabass Recorder (note, instrument is pitched at A=415)

Great Bass Recorder

Great Bass Recorder

Great-Bass Recorder range

The Great-Bass Recorder is pitched one octave below the Tenor.  It is the first recorder we encounter that is not made in an affordable plastic version.  This means that its availability will be rarer than any of the above instruments.  It has a warm and soft sound, but because of its size, its technique is more limited.  In pitch, it is the exact same as the Tenor Flute, and duets between the two instruments can be effective.  Its soft sound makes it harder to hear in larger groups.

The Great Bass is the largest recorder I have personally played, and I found it to be a useful instrument even if just doubling the bass part at the octave.  However, to fully double the bass part an octave lower, the rarer Contrabass Recorder is needed.

Vivaldi Sonata in F on Great Bass Recorder

Bass Recorder

Bass Recorder

Bass Recorder range

This instrument is pitched one octave below the Alto Recorder and is the highest recorder to be notated in the bass clef.  Two standard models now exist.  The plastic version is built with a kink in the body to facilitate ease of play, while wooden models are built straight with a short curved bocal.  The plastic models are generally easier to play and produce a fuller and more direct sound.  Unlike the Tenor, the Bass is always built with four keys and is an easier instrument to play.  This is a wonderful instrument that is often overlooked.  Remember that it is the exact same pitch level as the Violin.  This should give some idea of how much higher the other members of the family are.

Handel Sonata on Bass Recorder

Tenor Recorder

Tenor Recorder

Tenor Recorder range

The Tenor Recorder is an awkward instrument.  Generally, it is keyless, which makes the finger span the greatest of all the recorders (though some manufactures now produce models with keys for the right little finger).  In recorder consorts, the largest member of the group is generally placed on the Tenor.  It produces a very beautiful sound and is the exact same range as the C Flute.  The Tenor is softer and less direct sound than does the Alto Recorder.

Bach Cello Suite #1 on Tenor Recorder

Alto Recorder

Alto Recorder

Alto Recorder range

The Alto Recorder is the soloist of the family, and is the instrument most often associated with Baroque recorder works.  We should think of this instrument, and not the Soprano, as the primary voice in the family.  It has a clear voice and can be heard in all but the thickest contexts.

One note, in the UK the Alto Recorder is known as the Treble Recorder.

Telemann Sonata in F minor on Alto Recorder

Greensleeves to a Ground on Alto Recorder