The best known consort instruments of the Renaissance are the recorders. They differ from the transverse flutes by being blown at one end, having a whistle-like mechanism to produce the sound. Praetorius lists eight common sizes of recorder, ranging from what we would call “sopranino” down to a contrabass about seven feet long.

Recorders. Plate IX from Syntagma Musicum II, De Organographia, by Michael Praetorius (1618-19).



Tenor Recorder. Bassano family? (early 17th century). Brussels, Mus‚e Instrumental, 1025.


Recorder quartet at 8′ pitch. Italian recorder music. Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet. Editions de l’Oiseau-Lyre 430 246-2 (1991). Trk 3 Canzon la Bastina (excerpt).


Praetorius’s complete range of recorders would not all have been played together, however; a large (or 8′) consort would typically have used a tenor in C (about two feet long) on the top line down to a great bass in F (about six feet long) on the bass, while a small (or 4′) consort would have used a soprano in C or D (about a foot long) or an alto in G (about sixteen inches long) on top down to a bass or basset in F (about three feet long). The two groups would thus have sounded an octave apart.

Basset (small bass) Recorder. German? (early 17th century). Brussels, Musée Instrumental, no. 1031.

Basset recorder fontanelle (detail). German? (early 17th century). Brussels, Musée Instrumental, no. 1031.

Renaissance recorders do not have as large a range and are not so clear-toned as Baroque recorders, but they blend extremely well together. The instruments also show less decoration than Baroque recorders, using a simple, symmetrical shape. Like the shawms, larger recorders feature a fontanelle — a “pepper shaker” cover for the key mechanism that served both to protect the key and hide its asymmetry. The key itself is often referred to as a “swallow-tail,” and its shape allowed the instrument to be played with the left or the right hand down, there being no standard method as there is today.