Renaissance great bass recorder

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Contextual Associations

The great bass recorder is an end-blown duct-flute aerophone of Europe. In 15th and 16th century Europe the great bass recorder was most typically played with other recorders of differing sizes (see Renaissance Recorder Consort) by court musicians and musically cultivated amateurs to perform vocal-style polyphonic music. Aristocratic households in Italy and elsewhere in Europe often included recorders in their instrument inventories, although it is not always clear who played them in this context--members of the aristocracy, musicians in their employ, or both. Myers (p. 41) tells us that during this period the recorder also served as a pedagogical tool for musicians learning other, more professionalized woodwind instruments (such as the shawm and the cornett), and that such specialists would be able to double on the instrument when needed. Throughout the 20th century there was an early music revival, and recorders (especially replicas of Baroque period instruments, but eventually also Renaissance ones) were once again in demand. Recorders are played today by amateur enthusiasts, college students in early music ensembles, and a small number of professional performing and recording artists.


This replica instrument is made in four sections connected by tenon-and-socket joints. A curved length of metal tubing, called a bocal, is inserted into the top of the cap. The top end of the instrument's bore is still nearly entirely stopped with a wood plug (fipple) save for a narrow channel/duct that is left open between it and the inside wall of the body. Just below the duct a deep cut is chiseled into the upper side of the mouthpiece section to create the sharp edge against which the airstream is directed. Eight holes drilled in it, one being a thumbhole on the reverse side, the other seven being fingerholes. The lowest-positioned fingerhole is reached with the aid of a brass key that is partially hidden behind a bulging, perforated wood chamber near the bell end of the instrument.  Renaissance recorders have a mostly cylindrical bore with a slight tapering near their bell end. 

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The great bass is the largest and the lowest pitched member of the recorder consort, tuned in C with a range of C3 to A4. The player blows into the bocal and the airstream is channeled through a duct and directed against a sharp edge chiseled into the side of the instrument. Notes in the second octave are attained through a combination of increased airflow and the opening of the thumbhole. The playing technique involves coordination of finger work (including cross fingerings) and tongued articulations, which can be executed with great speed by accomplished players. The instrument has a narrow dynamic range.


The earliest surviving recorder was unearthed in the Netherlands and has been dated to the 15th century. However, that "the largest number of surviving Renaissance recorders belonged to noble families of northern Italy," and that Venice was clearly a site of early recorder treatise publication and of recorder manufacture, has led at least one scholar to credit Italy as the place of origin of this instrument type (Hunt, p. 206). Regardless, there is ample iconographic, published, and compositional evidence to suggest that the instrument and its manufacture and playing had spread throughout Europe and England by early in the 16th century. Sources are not clear as to when the features that identify the Renaissance recorder gave way to those that define the Baroque recorder, but it seems likely to have taken place in the latter half of the 17th century. Of two recorders from this period held by the National Music Museum, one dated to 1670 is of Renaissance design and another to 1680 is of Baroque design (see National Music Museum).

Bibliographic Citations

Hunt, Edgar. 1984. "Recorder [common flute, English flute]." NGDMI v. 3: 205-215.

Myers, Herbert. 1994. "Recorder," In A Performer's Guide to Renaissance Music. ed. Jeffery T. Kite-Powell. New York: Schirmer Books, pp. 41-55.

National Music Museum website, accessed May 1, 2013:


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Region: Southern Europe

Nation: Italy

Formation: European

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

421.221.12-5 aerophone--single open flute with internal duct: the duct is inside the tube; with wind-cap; with fingerholes

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: tubular - tapering with open distal end

Source and direction of airstream: player exhalation through mouth into air cavity; unidirectional

Energy transducer that activates sound: beveled edge in wall of instrument, indirectly blown against with aid of duct

Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: opening fingerholes to reduce space or shorten length of standing wave in air cavity

Overblowing utilization: overblowing at consecutive partials

Pitch production: multiple pitches - changing length of standing wave within cavity with fingerholes and by selecting partials through overblowing


52.2 in. length without bocal 1.7 in. bore diameter at mouthpiece 1.3 in. bore diameter at bell 23 in. length of bocal

Primary Materials




Entry Author

Roger Vetter