Notes from workshop on composing for harpsichord and recorder quartet, 20 October 2015


Despite the long histories of harpsichords and recorders, there is, strangely, no existing published repertoire for recorder quartet with harpsichord. This is all the more surprising considering that the complementary properties of the instruments lead to a compelling combination: the sweetness and coolness of the recorder, with the bright, clean sound of the harpsichord.

On 20th October 2015, Francis Knights and Stephen Watkins with the Dulcis Venti quartet gave a workshop at Colchester Institute on composing for harpsichord and recorder quartet. They introduced the context and practicalities of the instruments and played a series of pieces which illustrated the exciting possibilities of the ensemble.


A keyboard instrument in which the strings are plucked, rather than struck as in a piano. The harpsichord came to widespread use during the Renaissance, but popularity declined as the modern piano was developed. Since the early 20th Century, there has been a significant revival of interest from composers; there are over 10,000 modern pieces for solo harpsichord. Francis performed some of these to demonstrate aspects of modern harpsichord writing.

In practice, all harpsichords differ, and it is wise to check the parameters of the instrument for which one is writing, or assume a basic specification that will be widely applicable.

The harpsichord used for this demonstration was a close modern copy of a Flemish Baroque instrument, with two keyboards (‘two-manual’). If these keyboards are coupled together, one makes a slightly louder sound than the other, due to two sets of strings being plucked simultaeously; if uncoupled, the two keyboards produce different tone qualities. The basic sound of the instrument derives from the 8′ strings; on certain instruments a set of 4′ strings can also be coupled in to brighten the sound. In practice, 4′ strings are rarely tuned, so they should not be used for solo lines.

It is important to note that since, unlike the piano, there is no sustain pedal, sustain can only be achieved by the player keeping their fingers down on the relevant notes. The composer must therefore take into account the practicality of hand and finger positions in producing the desired effect.

See also Stephen Watkin’s thoughts on writing for harpsichord in contemporary and non-traditional styles.


The treble recorder ā€“ larger and lower-pitched than the typical school descant recorder ā€“ is the basic instrument. See the range chart below for full details of ranges and problem pitches, but in general if a recorder has a melody line it is best to place this in the strongest part of the range. For accompanying lines, it can conversely be effective to write them where the sound is weaker so they blend into the background. Useful effects can also be achieved by the change from homophonic to polyphonic writing.

Interesting rhythmic effects are achievable through tonguing: double-tonguing, triple-tonging and flutter-tonguing are all possible.

See for a detailed bibliography on composing for the recorder.

Click to expand image
Click to expand image

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