This article explains the complete history of the harpsichord. Pictures of early harpsichords and actions are also shown. If you have a comment about this article then please send us an email.
A harpsichord is the general term for a family of European keyboard instruments, including the large instrument nowadays called a harpsichord, but also the smaller virginals, the muselar virginals and the spinet. All these instruments generate sound by plucking a string rather than striking one, as in a piano or clavichord. The harpsichord family is thought to have originated when a keyboard was affixed to the end of a psaltery, providing a mechanical means to pluck the strings.
Virginal, probably English, late 17th century
The origin of the harpsichord is obscure, but is known to have begun some time during the high or late Middle Ages. The earliest written references to the instrument date from the 1300s and it is possible that the harpsichord was indeed invented in that century. This was a time in which advances in clockwork and other forms of early pre-modern machinery were being made and thus a likely time for the invention of those mechanical aspects that distinguish a harpsichord from a psaltery. A Latin manuscript work on musical instruments by Henri Arnault de Zwolle, c. 1440, includes detailed diagrams of a small harpsichord and three types of jack action.
The earliest complete harpsichords still preserved come from Italy, the oldest specimen being dated to 1521. The Royal Academy of Music in London, has an instrument of a curious upright form, which may be older; unfortunately, it lacks the action. These early Italian instruments can however shed no light on the origin of the harpsichord, as they represent an already well-refined form of the instrument. The Italian harpsichord makers made single-manual instruments with a very light construction and relatively little string tension. This design persisted with little alteration among Italian makers for centuries. The Italian instruments are considered pleasing but unspectacular in their tone and serve well for accompanying singers or other instruments.
A lady standing at a virginal, by Jan Vermeer van Delft
A revolution in harpsichord construction took place in Flanders some time around 1580 with the work of Hans Ruckers and his descendants, including Ioannes Couchet. The Ruckers harpsichord was more solidly constructed than the Italian was. Because they used longer strings (always with the basic two sets of strings; usually one 8-foot and a 4-foot, but occasionally both at 8-foot pitch), greater string tension, and a heavier case, as well as a very slender and responsive spruce soundboard, the tone was more sustaining than with the Italian harpsichord, and was widely emulated by harpsichord builders in most other nations. The Flemish makers also developed a style of two-manual harpsichord, which was initially used merely to permit easy transposition (at the interval of a fourth) rather than to increase the expressive range of the instrument. However, later in the 17th century the additional manual was also used for contrast of tone with the ability to couple the registers of both manuals for a fuller sound. The Flemish harpsichords were often elaborately painted and decorated.
The Flemish instrument received further development in 18th-century France, notably with the work of the Blanchet family and their successor Pascal Taskin. These French instruments imitated the Flemish design, but were extended in range, from about four to about five octaves. In addition, two-manual French instruments used their manuals to vary the combination of stops being used (that is, strings being plucked) rather than for transposition. The 18th century French harpsichord is often considered one of the pinnacles of harpsichord design, and it is widely adopted as a model for the construction of modern instruments.
Ruckers-Taskin harpsichord, (Paris, Muse de la Musique)
A striking aspect of the 18th-century French tradition was its near-obsession with the Ruckers harpsichords. In a process called grand ravalement, many of the surviving Ruckers instruments were disassembled and reassembled, with new soundboard material and case construction adding an octave to their range. It is considered likely that many of the harpsichords claimed at the time to be Ruckers restorations are fraudulent, though they are superb instruments in their own right. A more basic process was the so-called petit ravalement, in which the keyboards and string sets, but not the case, were modified.
In England, two immigrant makers, Jacob Kirckman (from Alsace) and Burkat Shudi (from Switzerland), achieved eminence with harpsichords noted for their powerful tone and exquisite veneered cases. The sound of Kirckman and Shudi harpsichords has impressed many listeners, but the feeling that it overpowers the music has led to very few modern instruments being modelled on them. The Shudi firm was passed on to Shudi’s son-in-law John Broadwood, who adapted it to the manufacture of pianos and became a leading creative force in the development of that instrument.
German harpsichord makers roughly followed the French model, but with a special interest in achieving a variety of sonorities, perhaps because, some of the most eminent German builders were also builders of pipe organs. Some German harpsichords included a choir of 2-foot strings (that is, strings pitched two octaves above the primary set). A few even included a 16-foot stop, pitched an octave below the main 8-foot choirs. One still-preserved German harpsichord even has three manuals to control the countless combinations of strings that were available. The 2-foot and 16-foot stops of the German harpsichord are not particularly favoured among harpsichordists today, who tend to prefer the French type of instrument.
At the peak of its development, the harpsichord lost favour to the piano. The piano quickly evolved away from its harpsichord-like origins, and as a result, the knowledge of how to build good harpsichords died out for over a century. In the early 20th century, an awakening interest in authentic performance led to the revival of the harpsichord. This included crude “modernizations” of antique instruments, as well as the construction of harpsichords resembling modern concert grand pianos. These instruments sounded surprisingly weak for their size, because their frames and soundboards were too heavy to properly match the thin and lightly tensioned strings of the harpsichord. Builders typically included a 16-foot stop in these instruments to bolster the sound, even though in historical times the 16-foot had played only a minor role.
Ultimately, it was acknowledged that to make fine modern harpsichords it would be necessary to learn the methods followed by the old builders. Two important pioneers in the process of rediscovery were the builder-scholars Frank Hubbard and William Dowd, who took apart and inspected many old instruments and consulted the written material on harpsichords from the historical period. Today, harpsichords that are based on the rediscovered principles of the old makers are built in workshops around the world. The workshops often also construct kits, which are assembled into final form by amateur enthusiasts.
The action is similar in all harpsichords:
How it works
The keylever is a simple pivot, which rocks on a pin passing through a hole drilled through it.
The jack is a thin, rectangular piece of wood which sits upright on the end of the keylever, held in place by the guides (upper and lower) which are two long pieces of wood with holes through which the jacks can pass.
In the jack, a plectrum juts out almost horizontally (normally the plectrum is angled upwards a tiny amount) and passes just under the string. Historically, plectra were normally made of crow quill or leather, though most modern harpsichords use a plastic (delrin or celcon) instead.
When the front of the key is pressed (2), the back is lifted up, the jack is raised, and the plectrum plucks the string (3).
Upon lowering the key, the jack falls back down under its own weight, and the plectrum pivots backwards to allow it past the string (4). This is made possible by having the plectrum held in a tongue, which is attached with a hinge and a spring to the body of the jack.
At the top of the jack, a damper of felt sticks out and keeps the string from vibrating when the key is not depressed (1).
shove coupler (French system)
dogleg jack (English system)
While the terms used to denote various members of the family have been quite standardized today, in the harpsichord’s heyday, this was not the case.
In modern usage, a harpsichord can either mean all the members of the family, or more specifically, the grand-piano-shaped member, with a vaguely triangular case accommodating long bass strings at the left and short treble strings at the right; characteristically, the profile is more elongated than that of a modern piano, with a sharper curve to the bentside. A harpsichord can have from one to three, and occasionally even more, strings per note. Often one is at 4-foot pitch, an octave higher than the normal 8-foot pitch. Single manuals, or keyboards, are common, especially in Italian harpsichords, though other countries occasionally produced double manuals and there are a few examples of three manual German instruments.