the instruments

There are around 200 surviving original recorders from the period 1500 – 1650, a time we could describe today as being as the golden age of the instrument. It was the only period in the recorder’s history where it was considered a serious musical instrument and where families of recorders were played in consort, principally to perform vocal music. Henry VIII (1491-1547) was so presumably so enchanted by the instrument that arranged for his agents to persuade members of the celebrated Bassano family to emigrate from Venice to England to play and make wind instruments at his court. An inventory of Henry’s collections made after his death in 1547, notes 76 recorders amongst the many musical instruments. Another example of the popularity of the recorder at this time is found in a 1531inventory of the Antwerp town musicians, which lists no fewer than 28 recorders.

Almost a fifth of these surviving recorders are found today in the Kunsthistorisches museum in Vienna, but come originally from the d’Este collection in the region of Padua. In spring 2000, the recorder maker Adrian Brown started a serious survey of these instruments, eventually resulting in a new museum catalogue of all 43 recorders in the collection. This project gave him the freedom to study minutely all the details of these instruments and has had an important influence on his work.

He says: "as a maker of historical instruments, I find it important to stay in touch with the most recent musicological and organological research. Following my work in Vienna and by making my own close reconstructions I finally understood why these original instruments we made as they were. Above all the compromises involved and the choices the makers made when designing their instruments. I also realised that all the recorders from this period were made in sizes a fifth apart, something that can be seen from the original cases too and that I had noticed in other museums. The treatises also indicate this very clearly, but it seemed to have been almost unnoticed by makers until about 10 years ago. This might seem a tiny footnote of musical history, but it is of great importance to the instrument. Recorders that are tuned in fifths from one another sound very differently when played together and this makes a huge difference to the way we use these instruments and our ideas of historical performance practice." 

The recorders used by Mezzaluna can be divided into two basic sets. The first set contains copies of anonymous instruments with the maker’s mark HIER.S or HIE S. These date probably to the first half of the 16th century and are of either Venetian or German origin. They are tuned in a "ladder" of intervals of a fifth starting on F under the bass clef, to a’ in the treble clef. A second set is based on recorders with the !! stamp, almost certainly that of the Bassano Family of London and Venice. These somewhat later instruments were probably made in the second half of the 16th century and are tuned in a row of four fifths, from f in the bass clef to d’’ in the treble clef. The largest of these recorders has a two-note extension extending the lowest tone available to d.