Recorder repertoire can be traced back to the Middle Ages. The instrument was often present in music of the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque periods, but in the mid-eighteenth century it disappeared from use because it could not keep up with the new musical developments that occurred during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (instruments such as the viola da gamba, lute and harpsichord suffered the same demise). The recorder made a reappearance in about 1900 when early music began to be ‘revived’ in Europe, but all of its playing techniques had to be entirely rediscovered.
While England resurrected the recorder as a historical instrument, the Germans regarded it as a "new" one. Unfortunately, they quickly used it as a convenient and inexpensive means of musical edification under the difficult war conditions. The tradition of starting children on the recorder so that they could later progress onto the violin or the piano was begun in Germany in the 1930's, however, this propagation of the recorder as a child's instrument had disastrous results. Only in the 1950's, besides being used in music education and holding strong popularity in the amateur circuit, the recorder finally began to gain professional status. The level of performance began to improve strongly and some serious compositions started to be written by better composers. The recorder had literally restarted its development after about 150 years in submission.
A new developmental phase began during the avant-garde period of the 1960's when innovation discarded with all of the recorder's historical associations as well as with its conventional techniques. Prior to the 1960's, composers treated the recorder as a simple melody instrument without having a clear idea of its capabilities or its distinctive and unique sound qualities. In fact, quality of recorder repertoire only began to appear when the recorder's image as a sort of quieter, less-flexible flute had disappeared, paired with the exploration of its fantastic modern capabilities such as pure sound character, the production of glissandi, micro-tones and articulation effects.
Another important influence that emerged during the 1960's was the boom of interest in historical performance practice. This generated a lot of new information about recorder technique and it also improved the standard of performances. The same people were often specialising in the performance of both old and new music simultaneously. Some of them acted as player-composers, especially in Germany with names such as Gerhard Braun, Michael Vetter and in Switzerland Hans Martin Linde featuring prominently.
The Netherlands was a protagonist in the emergence of this ‘new’ instrument. Within a relatively short period of time, Dutch recorder players such as Walter van Hauwe, Frans Brüggen and Kees Boeke, had developed playing techniques to the highest professional levels. Their skills caught the attention of a significant number of well-known composers, which led to the search for a twentieth century recorder idiom. By the 1980's, the emancipation of the recorder had already become a fact.
Historically speaking, the technical level of recorder playing has never ever been as high as it is now. Many more original compositions have been written for recorder over the past fifty years than in the entire history of recorder composition up until 1960. There are now outstanding contemporary recorder works by many different composers, and the qualities of the recorder (blockflute) as a solo instrument hardly need defining anymore. More recent developments hold a promising position of the instrument in the contemporary chamber music world.
The involvement of the instrument with electronics and multimedia was a logical consequence. During the past 10-15 years, electronic equipment has become much more portable, affordable, and technology keeps on developing tools and inspiration for artistic expression. Electro-acoustic music has got new platforms for experimentation and collaboration projects between different artists seem to be improving on different levels. The result: new challenges, new repertory, new ideas to be discussed and new approaches yet to be discovered.
There are 4 main naming categories for the instrument according to different languages:
a) The English name Recorder may be a derivation from the obsolete English verb "to record" (to sing like a bird). This word resembles the Italian word "ricordo" (remembrance or a keepsake) and the Latin word "recordari" (to be mindful or to recollect).
b) The Dutch term Blokfluit and the German term Blockflöte, both refer to the instrument's "block". This is an essential part of the instruments voice.
c) The French term Flûte à bec and the Spanish Flauta de Pico (used in Spain and Mexico) means "beaked flute". This name refers to the shape of the head piece.
d) The Italian Flauto Dolce and Spanish Flauta Dulce (used in most South-American countries) means 'sweet flute". This name refers to the timbre of the baroque recorder.
The term Blockflute was introduced in 1984 by Walter van Hauwe to distinguish the instrument, traditionally called Recorder in English, from 'recorder' devices. Especially in the field of contemporary compositions, electronics and multimedia, the double meaning of the word recorder became very confusing, since nowadays it often refers to a recording device (CD recorder, DVD recorder, video recorder, digital recorder, voice recorder, tape recorder, camcorder, etc). Jorge Isaac and other protagonists of the instrument use therefore the term Blockflute for any instrumental practice in a contemporary sense. This direction is being followed by an increasing number of composers, arrangers, scholars and players worldwide.