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Clavichord History


The clavichord is a European stringed keyboard instrument known from the late Medieval, through the Renaissance, Baroque and Classical eras. Historically, it was widely used as a practice instrument and as an aid to composition. The clavichord produces sound by striking brass or iron strings with small metal blades called tangents. Vibrations are transmitted through the bridge(s) to the soundboard. The name is derived from the Latin word 'clavis', meaning "key" and 'chordis' meaning string.


History and use

The clavichord was invented in the early fourteenth century. It was popular in the 16th-18th centuries, but mainly flourished in German-speaking lands, Scandinavia and the Iberian Peninsula in the latter period; it fell out of use in the 1840s. In the late 1890s, Arnold Dolmetsch revived clavichord construction. Although most of the instruments built before the 1730s were small (four octaves, 4 ft.), the latest instruments were built up to seven feet long with a six octave range.


Today clavichords are played primarily by Renaissance, Baroque and Classical music enthusiasts. They maintain a level of interest amongst buyers, and are manufactured worldwide. A modern clavichord can range in price from $5,000 to as much as $20,000. There are now numerous clavichord societies around the world, and some 400 recordings of the instrument have been made in the past 70 years. Leading modern exponents of the instrument include Derek Adlam, Christopher Hogwood, Paul Simmonds, Steve Barrell, Richard Troeger, and Miklos Spányi, and fine modern instruments are widely available. Prominent makers including Peter Bavington in Great Britain, Joris Potvleighe in Belgium, Thomas Stainer in Austria, Ronald Haas, Owen Daly, and Andrew Lagerquist in the United States.


The clavichord has also gained attention in other genres of music, like rock in the form of the clavinet, which is essentially an electric clavichord which uses a magnetic pickup to provide a signal for amplification.


Structure and Action

In the clavichord strings run transversely from the hitchpin rail at the left-hand end to tuning pegs on the right. Towards the right end they pass over a curved wooden bridge. The action is simple, with the keys being levers with a small brass tangent at the far end. The strings, which are usually of brass, or else a combination of brass and iron, are usually arranged in pairs, like a lute or mandolin. When the key is pressed, the tangent strikes the strings above, causing them to sound in a similar fashion to the hammering technique on a guitar. Unlike in a piano action, the tangent does not rebound from the string; rather, it stays in contact with the string as long as the key is held, acting as both the nut and as the initiator of sound. The volume of the note can be changed by striking harder or softer, and the pitch can also be affected by varying the force of the tangent against the string (known as bebung). When the key is released, the tangent loses contact with the string and the vibration of the string is silenced by strips of damping cloth.



Since the string vibrates from the bridge only as far as the tangent, multiple keys with multiple tangents can be assigned to the same string. This is called fretting. Early clavichords frequently had many notes played on each string, even going so far as the keyed monochord – an instrument with only one string – though most clavichords were triple- or double-fretted. Since only one note can be played at a time on each string, the fretting pattern is generally chosen so that notes which are rarely heard together (such as C and C#) share a string pair. The advantages to this system compared with unfretted instruments (see below) include relative ease of tuning (with around half as many strings to keep in tune), greater volume (though still not really enough for use in chamber music), and a clearer, more direct sound. Among the disadvantages: temperament could not be re-set without re-bending the tangents; and playing required a further refinement of touch, since notes sharing a single string played in quick succession needed to be slightly separated to avoid a disagreable deadening of the sound, potentially disturbing a legato line.


From the earliest times, clavichords have been built with a single pair of strings for each note. Such instruments are referred to as unfretted. Among the advantages to unfretted instruments are flexibility in tuning (the temperament can be easily altered) and the ability to play any music exactly as written without concern for "bad" notes. Disadvantages include a smaller volume, in spite of the fact that many or most unfretted instruments tend to be significantly larger than unfretted instruments; and many more strings to keep in tune. Unfretted instruments tend to have a sweeter, less incisive tone due to the greater load on the bridge due to the greater number of strings, though the large, late (early 19th century) Swedish clavichords tend to be the loudest of any of the historic clavichords.


While clavichords were typically single manual instruments, they could be stacked to provide multiple keyboards. With the addition of a pedal clavichord, they were ideal practice instruments for organists, particularly in the age of hand-pumped blowers and unheated churches. There is speculation that some works written for organ may have been intended for pedal clavichord. An interesting case is made by Joel Speerstra that Bach's "Eight Little Preludes and Fugues", now thought to be spurious, may actually be authentic. The keyboard writing seems unsuited to organ, but Speerstra argues that they are perfectly idiomatic on the pedal clavichord. A recently released recording would seem to offer support to this argument.



Much of the music written for harpsichord, piano, and organ from the period circa 1400-1800 can be played on the clavichord; however, it does not have enough (unamplified) volume to participate in chamber music, with the possible exception of providing accompaniment to a soft baroque flute, recorder, or single singer. J. S. Bach's son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was a great proponent of the instrument. Both Mozart, and Beethoven played the clavichord. Indeed, from the Baroque period to the early nineteen century, many composers would have written their compositions at the clavichord: Handel's Messiah and Mozart's opera The Magic Flute were both composed at the instrument. Beethoven is also known to have owned a clavichord, with built-in ink wells and a music desk over the soundboard.


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