Recorder orchestra

HRS have uploaded a series of recorder tracks to this site taken from three CDs that it has recorded. The tracks will give you a flavour for the music created by a recorder orchestra.

History of the recorder orchestra

The recorder orchestra tends to be thought of as a later twentieth century phenomenon. Nonetheless, there are those who speculate that, perhaps, its roots lie back in the sixteenth century because Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) included an engraving showing a family of eight or, possibly, nine wide-bore Renaissance recorders of different sizes as Plate IX of the “Theatrum Instrumentorum” at the end of “Syntagma Musicum”, his encyclopaedic treatise on contemporary musical practice and instrumentation. However, even if these differently sized instruments were played together, perhaps with music scored as for the layered registration of a pipe organ, there does not seem to be any written evidence, either in scores or description, that this happened.

Instead, then, we turn to the twentieth century for the more established roots of the current tradition. Although the revival of the recorder tends to be attributed to the work of Albert Dolmetsch and others in England, O’Kelly suggests there was a parallel, but independent, movement in Germany and, possibly, in other European countries. The scale of this revival was evident in an explosion of amateur recorder playing, with many groups meeting on a regular basis to play 2-6 part music under the aegis of the Society of Recorder Players founded in 1937. The recorder was played in schools and some young players continued their studies to higher levels. The resulting increase in the numbers of players, their abilities and the range of instruments played was recognised as an opportunity for a new, differently structured, way of playing from the restricted instrumentation of the more familiar recorder ensemble music. Depending on what you read, who you talk to or where you are from, you may find either Rudolf Barthel or Dennis Bamforth and his colleagues cited as the father/s of the modern recorder orchestra. Rudolf Barthel worked in Germany in the 1950s; Dennis Bamforth and his colleagues worked in the north west of England in the early 1970s.

The earliest recorder orchestras in Britain were founded in London, Manchester and Birmingham (Heart of England). At the time of its first CD (“The Hampshire Recorder Sinfonia”, 1997), HRS was able to claim that it was one of only four recorder orchestras in England. By the time of its second recording (“A Very English Sound” 2001), it was one of six in the UK and by its third (“Parodies and Paraphrases”, 2006), one of ten. Now (early 2009), there are at least 12 in the UK, including the, now well established, National Youth Recorder Orchestras. This demonstrates the growing popularity of the genre and the pleasure that players gain from the recorder orchestra format.

While recorder orchestras seem to be a particularly popular phenomenon in Britain, they are not confined to it. Recorder orchestras are to be found around the world, from The Netherlands to the USA, from Germany to Australia, from Taiwan to Italy. Search the internet on “recorder orchestra” and there are sure to be surprises.

Instrumentation of a recorder orchestra

While the instrumentation of a recorder orchestra will reflect available players, their skill and their instruments, the normal layout of a recorder orchestra is:

Sopranino: This small recorder usually scales the highest range of notes and provides sparkle over the top of the larger instruments. Very occasionally, scoring calls for divided sopraninos.

Descant or soprano: This recorder is the best known because of its widespread use in school music. Played in an orchestral setting, it achieves a different dimension, providing lightness and playfulness, often dancing agilely over its lower colleagues. Recorder orchestra music frequently calls for divided descants.

Treble or alto: Because of its use in schools and for virtuoso solo playing, the treble is probably the second-best known recorder. Recorder orchestra scoring will call for two or three divisions of the treble instruments and, with the tenors, these provide the middle ground of the orchestral sound.

Tenor: Whether bent or straight, these deeper, richer instruments, complement the trebles in the middle of the orchestra. Like the trebles, tenors will be divided into two or three parts depending on the scoring.

Bass in F: Moving down to the deeper tones of the orchestra, the F basses are usually divided into two, but sometimes three, parts. Frequently, with their lower colleagues, they provide a rhythmic ground but also, often, develop their own melodic lines.

Great bass or bass in C: These sonorous instruments contribute to the foundation of the orchestra, offering a deep, rich tone to melody or rhythmic support.

Contra bass: The biggest instrument played in HRS, the contra bass provides the deep grounding of the whole orchestra. Occasionally, the contras are moved to flights of fancy and take centre stage; more often they provide rhythmic support and the deep undertones of modern recorder orchestra scoring.

While these constitute the range of instruments normally played by HRS, there are three other recorders:

The garkleinflötlein: This tiny recorder, a few inches long, is seldom used because its range is very high. In the right hands, it adds brilliance over the top of the conventional range.

The subcontrabass: Even bigger and lower in tone than the contrabass, there are few of these animals in existence, making their contribution to the recorder orchestra exceptional and cherished.

The sub-subcontrabass or octobass: The grand-daddy of all recorders, seldom seen and seldom heard, this is the largest and deepest of the recorder family.

Although HRS, to enjoy music written for fewer parts, will sometimes merge divisions to play sextet, octet and other scores, it normally plays music in 11 or more (up to 14) parts. It has been said that the resulting soundscape compares with the registers of an organ or the scoring possibilities of a brass band.

Music for recorder orchestra

The lack of historical repertoire for recorder orchestra has been mentioned. This has meant that, as recorder playing flourished and scores for extended instrumentation were sought, new music had to be provided. There is now a considerable range of music available; some arrangements of known and loved repertoire, others new compositions specifically written for recorder orchestra, including many written specifically for HRS.

Early responses include works by Colin Hand, Denis Bloodworth and Daryl Runswick, writing in six parts with large ensembles in mind (sometimes for particular branches of the Society for Recorder Players). In writing for more parts, the monochrome palette provided by the single tone colour of the instruments offers both a limitation and a challenge to composers and arrangers – and to musical directors and players! To respond requires good understanding of the instruments and the opportunities that they provide. Composers like Lyndon Hilling, Paul Clark and Michael Sammons have recognised and responded to this in very different ways.

HRS has – or has had - close links with a number of composer/arrangers, some of whom have composed or arranged specifically for HRS. They include Denis Bloodworth, Andrew Challinger, Paul Clark, Colin Touchin, Colin Hand and Steve Marshall. In 2004, HRS was able to commission a substantial piece of music by Ian Schofield – “Parodies and Paraphrases on L’Homme Armé”. Additionally, HRS is particularly lucky in having talented arrangers in the group. Christopher Burgess, Helen Hooker, Mary Steele and a young player, Charlotte Raines, have all provided arrangements and/or new compositions for the orchestra. It is a reflection of the wealth of new recorder orchestra music that HRS’s third CD, “Parodies and Paraphrases”, includes only material written or arranged for HRS.


O’Kelly, E. Undated. “The Recorder Today”.