dolmetsch onlinetransposing instruments

Why Are Recorder Parts Not Like Clarinet Parts

the late John Howell

Craig Carmichael asked:

Every other wind & brass instrument besides recorder that has different pitched versions uses "transposition" so that the fingerings are the same for apparently "the same" notes that are actually different. It has always been a mystery to me why not recorder. Then there'd only be one set of fingerings to learn.

John answers:

Not a great mystery, Craig. In the 18th century, almost all instruments were notated in concert pitch, but using the 9 movable positions of the G, C, and F clefs. Musicians were trained to read all clefs, and it simply wasn't a problem for them. Modern musicians are not.

If you have occasion to look at the modern edition of Ganassi's 1535 recorder tutor, look in the very back. He gives fairly obscure instructions that make sense when you realize he's saying that you can use his tutor for any of the three sizes then in general use--the alto (treble) in G, tenor in C, and bass in F--by mentally changing the clef at the beginning of each line.

The exceptions were trumpets and tympani. As late as the 17th century trumpet corps (with tympani) were attached to the military, not to the household musicians, and they used a notation in which lines and spaces on the staff represented liptones rather than notes of the diatonic scale. Since they didn't play with other instruments (recall that the trumpet fanfare that opens Monteverdi's "L'Orfeo" is the ONLY appearance of trumpets in that score, and when he rewrote that fanfare for the "Vespers" of 1610 he rescored it for cornetti and sackbutts), they didn't have to worry about what key they were playing in as long as their instruments matched each other. That changed when trumpets and tympani became part of the orchestra. (Ever wonder why all the movements in Handel's "Messiah" that use trumpets are in the key of D? It's because the trumpets available to Handel were in the key of D, relative to whatever pitch he was tuning to.) So these trumpet parts (and the horn parts that came out of the same general background practice) were the first example of "transposed" parts.

Then, in the 2nd half of the 18th century, along came the clarinet or, as it was often called, the "clarionette." It was originally considered to be a replacement for the extremely high, extremely difficult technique of playing the high or "clarino" trumpet parts. It was also the first woodwind instrument that, because the chromatic notes were MUCH duller sounding than the notes of its natural scale, HAD to be built in different keys. That, combined with the tradition of trumpet notation, was the first use of writing parts transposed instead of in different clefs. The idea caught on and during the 19th century became THE way to prepare woodwind parts.

But by that time the recorder had died out of widespread use, to the point that when Arnold Dolmetsch started investigating "old" (i.e. 18th century and before) instruments there was no longer a living tradition of teaching and playing. More importantly, the recorder as an instrument had missed the entire process of redesigning and industrializing the manufacture of all the other woodwinds that occupied instrument builders during the 19th century, so it was revised in its 18th century form.

The final factor was the publication, starting in the mid-19th century, of collected works of earlier composers. These were published for study purposes, and naturally were published in score rather than in separate parts. Which meant that 20th century players, coming across this music in 19th century editions using the original clefs, had to learn to do exactly what 18th century musicians did--read from concert pitch and from a variety of different clefs.

That's why recorder music isn't published with transposed parts for every instrument. It would be easy as pie to do it, but would anybody buy it that way? One of the things you would lose is flexibility in performance. If a top line part sounds too thin on soprano recorder, you can often play it on alto by reading it at pitch. Or if an alto part lies too high for a semi-beginning player, you can play it in the lower octave of the soprano.

End of lecture. (Aren't you glad you asked!!)

Philippe Bolton added the following note:

I would just like to add a comment about Thomas Stanesby Junior's concept of the tenor recorder. Considering it to be regrettable that the "Concert Flute" (alto or treble recorder) only goes down to f, which means that musicians have to transpose if they want to play music written lower.

He proposes to "produce the Flute (recorder) to an equal pitch and compass with the Hoboy (oboe) or Transverse Flute, so that any Musick written for those instruments or for the Violin in their compass shall be played by the Flute in Concert a unison to them, without the trouble of Transposing or writing out parts for the Flute, otherwise than what fits those Instruments: which will so facilitate the use of the Hoboy, English Flute and Transverse Flute, that whosoever can use one, can use all, and one general Scale of the plain Notes will serve all." (Th Stanesby: "A new System of the FLUTE A' BEC or Common ENGLISH FLUTE").

Thomas Stanesby Junior did in fact make a 4 piece tenor recorder, turned and shaped like a baroque transverse flute, with one double hole on the flute-like foot joint. This superb instrument is today in the collection of the Musée de la Musique in Paris.