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Musical instrument played by means of a keyboard

A harpsichord (Italian: clavicembalo, French: clavecin, German: Cembalo, Spanish: clavecín, Portuguese: cravo, Dutch: klavecimbel) is a musical instrument played by means of a keyboard. This activates a row of levers that turn a trigger mechanism that plucks one or more strings with a small plectrum made from quill or plastic. The strings are under tension on a soundboard, which is mounted in a wooden case; the soundboard amplifies the vibrations from the strings so that the listeners can hear it. Like a pipe organ, a harpsichord may have more than one keyboard manual,[1] and even a pedal board. Harpsichords may also have stop buttons which add or remove additional octaves. Some harpsichords may have a buff stop, which brings a strip of buff leather or other material in contact with the strings, muting their sound to simulate the sound of a plucked lute.


If you want to buy a harpsichord, Hubbard Harpsichords makes as fine instruments as have ever been made. The Harpsichord Clearing House is the best source of used instruments I know of. If you want to learn about old instruments, read the Galpin Society Journal and the Quarterly of the Fellowship of Makers and Researchers of Historical Instruments
The revival of the instruments with the sound that ravished three centuries of the world's most discerning musicians began with Frank Hubbard's studies with Hugh Gough in 1948,

his research that culminated in his "Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making" of 1965, and all the apprentices he trained. (My instrument was made by Wm.Ross, an early Hubbard apprentice.) By the late 1900s, many craftsmen made instruments as musical as the old, such as this 1976 Ruckers/Taskin harpsichord by Hubbard. And, many performers played them as well as the old.

Several German firms experimented with plucked pianos late in the 1800's.

By 1900, a young Polish pianist, Wanda Landowska, had figured out how to make good music with them and, in 1912, the French firm of Pleyel brought out a model designed for her, shown at right.

Ralph Kirkpatrick and others used similar instruments to join her in developing a wholly new sound that blended piano and organ techniques of the time. A French violinist, Arnold Dolmetsch, made a number of instruments at several workshops based on English harpsichords of the late 1700s, but without their sonority - they attracted few admirers. Some of the surviving large harpsichords were modified by replacing a set of strings by strings an octave below normal pitch - at least one such modified instrument was attributed to J.S.Bach.

Only in Spain and Portugal was there any significant development of the Italian harpsichord, the range was increased to the 5 octaves used by Domenico Scarlatti.
The number of strings increased

large instruments often having three choirs per note. And, the choirs were now designed to be easily selected by the player in various combinations for different sound effects.

Two manual instruments became more common (but were always in the small minority). Usually the choirs used by an upper manual were voiced more quietly than those used by the lower, allowing choice of a forte-piano contrast as well as a tonal contrast.

Despite these changes, however, the essential mechanical layout and sound of the Flemish instruments of the mid-1500s were retained in northern instruments during the 1700s. This was the instrument for which the Couperins, J.S.Bach, Handel, Haydn, and the other great northern composers wrote. This example is an 18th century French rebuild of a 1623 Ruckers. (Photo courtesy Michael Meacock)

instrument by Fabry of Bologna, the range has been extended by splitting the lowest two sharp keys and squeezing two new sets of strings into an existing design.
two fundamental strings played together predominated in Italian practise and most of the old ones were converted to this style.

(The oldest surviving harpsichord, by Hieronymus Bononiensis in 1521, was originally single strung.) Italian practise then remained largely unchanged as long as the harpsichord was used. Further development of harpsichords was based on the Flemish models of the late 1500s.

During this century, the harpsichord range was increased.

Most early instruments cover less than 4 octaves, this was gradually expanded to 5 octaves.

Often this was done by retuning the bass octave to omit sharp notes, thus reaching deeper notes with no change to the instrument. In this 1677 instrument by Fabry of Bologna, the range has been extended by splitting the lowest two sharp keys and squeezing two new sets of strings into an existing design.

About 1560, the Flemish began making the spinetta bigger, with a rectangular outline.

The most popular instrument of this type was called a muselaar, and sounded like a lute. Others sounded like the Italian instruments, but had a wider range. This painting of student and teacher is by Jan VerMeer, c1660.

Also at this time, the Flemish made the first known efforts to vary the sound of the basic harpsichord. The muselaars had a set of metal pins which could be slid up to the strings near one end. Two-manual harpsichords appear by 1580, with the spinetten sound on the upper manual and a lute sound on the lower (but not as much so as the muselaar). The Flemish also made elaborate virginal pairs an octave apart - these could be played as two entirely separate instruments, as a two manual instrument, or be coupled together to sound as one.

a small "form" of the harpsichord appears in Italy, the spinetta, with single strings parallel to the keyboard. It has a pentagonal outline, and both ends of the strings rest on a soundboard.

Further Resources


A Brief History of the Harpsichord


Friedrich Gulda: J.S. Bach - Prelude & Fugue No. 1 in C major, BWV 846, Well-Tempered Clavier I


July 7, 2015

harpsichord | Definition, History, & Facts


Harpsichord mechanism


September 8, 2020


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