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Composing for Recorder Quartet 

Palisander’s collection of instruments includes recorders of varying sizes. Historically, music for recorder consort often used instrumentation reflecting a vocal choir – Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass. However, using different combinations of instruments can achieve vastly different sound worlds. For example, using a ‘low consort’ of recorders, including Tenor, Bass, Great Bass and Contra Bass will produce a richer, fuller sound than a ‘high consort.’ Pairing Garklein and Sopranino recorders can produce a much thinner, but sparkling timbre. Writing for recorders of equal voices (ie. 4x Tenor recorders) greatly reduces the range of notes that can be played, but creates a thick texture in close harmony. Links to audio examples of different combinations can be found at the bottom of this document.

 

Compositions may feature the same four recorders throughout, but it is not uncommon for instrumentation to change between movements, or even mid-movement – so long as a few bars rest are given for the player to make the swap. 

 

You may choose to write for any combination of recorders from Palisander’s inventory: 

 

Garklein (x1) 

Sopranino (x2) 

Soprano/Descant (x4) 

Alto/Treble (x4) 

Tenor (x4) 

Bass (x4) 

Great Bass (x1) 

Contra Bass (x1) 

 

Parts for Garklein – Tenor should be written in Treble Clef, and Bass- Contra Bass in Bass Clef. 

Soprano Recorder 
  • Also called a Descant recorder in the UK 

  • Comfortable playing range of 2 octaves from C5 (one C above middle C) to C7. 

  • Notated one octave lower than it sounds, using a treble clef with an 8 above it (most notation programmes will do this automatically) 

  • Fuller sound than the Garklein or Sopranino recorder 

 

Alto Recorder 
  • Also called a Treble recorder in the UK 

  • Comfortable playing range of 2 octaves from F4 (one F above middle C) to F6. 

  • Notated at sounding pitch 

  • More mellow tone than the higher instruments 

Tenor Recorder 
  • Comfortable playing range of 2 octaves from C4 (middle C) to C6. 

  • Notated at sounding pitch 

  • A warmer, beefier tone than the higher instruments. 

Bass Recorder 
  • Comfortable playing range of 2 octaves from F3 to E5. 

  • Notated in bass clef, one octave lower than it sounds, using a bass clef with an 8 above it (most notation programmes will do this automatically) 

  • A warm, broad sound. Very good at percussive sound techniques such as sputatos. 

Low Recorders: 
Great Bass Recorder 
  • Comfortable playing range of 2 octaves from C3 (one octave below middle C) to A4 

  • Notated in bass clef, one octave lower than it sounds, using a bass clef with an 8 above it (most notation programmes will do this automatically) 

  • A warm, broad sound. Requires a lot of air to play, so it is not possible to slur passages for more than 7-8 seconds at a time. 

  • Very good at percussive sound techniques such as sputatos. 

Contra Bass Recorder 
  • Comfortable playing range of 2 octaves from F2 – E4 

  • Notated in bass clef, at sounding pitch 

  • Whilst it has a warm timbre, it has comparatively quiet sound. 

  • Very good at percussive sound techniques such as sputatos. 

High Recorders 
Garklein Recorder 
  • Comfortable playing range from C6 (2 Cs above middle C) to G7 (a twelfth above that). Should be notated 2 octaves below using a treble clef and marked ‘Garklein’. 

  • Sits comfortably in C major, the only chromatic notes available are F# & Bb. 

  • Tends to be used quite sparingly as it has a very high sound 

  • Little to no dynamic variation is possible. In order to play in tune a player is required to sustain a dynamic of mf-f 

  • The smallest and highest of all recorders, at only 6 inches in length, semi-quaver passages should be minimized due to finger positioning. 

Sopranino Recorder 
  • Comfortable playing range from F5 (2 Fs above middle C) to G7. 

  • Notated one octave lower using a treble clef with an 8 above it (most notation programmes will do this automatically) 

  • Fully Chromatic Range 

  • A very bright, but thin sound- often compared to bird song. 

  • Little to no dynamic variation is possible. In order to play in tune a player is required to sustain a dynamic of mf-f 

 
Things to bear in mind 

Historically, the recorder didn’t continue to evolve in the way modern woodwind instruments have. This means our copies of historical instruments can be subject to limitations not experienced in the wider woodwind family. 

  • Limited Dynamic Range – The range of dynamics possible on the recorder is more comparable to mp-mf on modern woodwind instruments. Palisander will often create the illusion changes such as a crescendo using varying articulation – delicate, soft blown detached notes, that become fuller as the phrase gets louder. 

  • The higher the instrument, the louder its natural sound  – The contra bass and great bass recorders produce naturally softer tones than the descant and sopranino- which will naturally cut through textures more easily. The lower instruments will create a more equal, blended sound, if that is the desired effect. 

  • Comfortable Keys – as with many historical instruments, the consorts tuning in keys of multiple flats and sharps can be unreliable. The sound across the instrument’s range is more even in signatures with less sharps and flats. Palisander would ask that compositions should feature key signatures of no more than four #s or b’s – with a preference of fewer than that, where possible. 

 
Extended techniques 

The recorder has an enormous number of extended techniques, which can be employed on all instruments from the Soprano – Contra Bass. These include (but are not limited to) singing whilst playing, glissando, sputato (percussive) tonguing, flutter tonguing, varying vibrato sounds and leaking air over the top of the mouthpiece. It is possible for the players to say any combination of consonant-vowel sound (ta, ti, te, tu, toh etc) into or over the recorder for further effects. 

 

There is not always a standardized notation for these techniques, so please include a key with your score, if you intend to use them. 

This video gives a clear introduction to a big range of extended techniques, how they sound, and how to notate them: 

Further Listening 

Palisander ‘low consort’ instruments (Tenor, Bass, Great Bass, Contra Bass) 

www.facebook.com/1435111280049665/videos/2375321782732762

 

Palisander SATB consort (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass) www.facebook.com/1435111280049665/videos/541294529610700/ 

 

Palisander piece using all recorders (Garklein – Contra Bass) 

www.facebook.com/1435111280049665/videos/543302872988231 

 

Palisander – using contemporary techniques (4x Treble) www.facebook.com/1435111280049665/videos/3080213728655343 

 

Miriam Monaghan