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General FAQ -- the most-asked questions about early keyboard instruments, including how much do they cost....

Harpsichord family FAQ -- What is a harpsichord, about the harpsichord family, harpsichord terms, types of harpsichords, how they work, a bit of history, etc.

Topics covered in this Harpsichord FAQ:

The harpsichord family: In general, a harpsichord can be described as any wire-strung instrument whose strings are plucked by means of jacks operated by keys which the player depresses. Clavichords, forte-pianos, and organs, although early keyboard instruments, are not plucked, so they may leave this FAQ and go to their own. Lautenwerke have gut strings and are discussed in the "weird relatives" FAQ. All true members of the harpsichord family have a case, strings, jacks and a keyboard. The strings sound from the nut (strip of wood which the strings cross near the tuning pins) to the bridge (strip of wood which the strings cross near the hitchpins). The members of the harpsichord family are divided into subcategories according to the relative positions of these elements. The major subcategories are harpsichord, spinet, virginals, lautenwerke and clavicytherium.

The harpsichord: The harpsichord "proper" has a flat, wing-shaped case with the long side ("spine") to the bass side, which is to the left of the keyboard, and the short side ("cheek") to the treble end of the keyboard, on the right. The bentside connects the far end of the cheek to the far end of the spine, there may be a short tailpiece. The strings run from tuning pins in the wrestplank, which is at the front of the instrument just behind the keyboard, to hitchpins along the bentside and tail, front-to-back relative to the player. The jacks are in a row perpendicular to the strings and fairly close to the nut. Most harpsichords are between 2 to 3 feet wide and can range in length from as little 3 or 4 feet to 10 feet long and more.

The spinet: The spinet has a wing-shaped case but the keyboard is set into the bentside. This puts the wrestplank to the left or bass side of the keyboard and the strings run side-to-side relative to the player. This configuration is good in smaller spaces, as the player and his bench or chair don't need to be along the wall. Spinets were developed in the late 17th century by English builders and enjoyed a great popularity there. They have a fascinating history and rate their own FAQ.

The virginal(s): The virginal, also called virginals, usually has a rectangular case with the keyboard across the wide side. As with the spinet, the strings run side-to-side relative to the player. Again, it saves on wallspace, and again they rate their own FAQ. Virginals were fairly early, 15th and16th centuries. Henry VIII was accounted a great virginal player, as was his daughter Elizabeth I.

How harpsichords are described: Harpsichords come in various kinds. The primary classification is by national style (Italian, Flemish, French, German, and English are the main ones) and the number of manuals (single, double, triple), and the answer to "what kind of harpsichord is that?" is usually one or two words, e.g., "French double", "German single" or "Italian". A full description will also include the maker, the year, the compass of the keyboard (that is the span from lowest note to highest, usually given in Helmholtz notation) the disposition (describes the sets of strings) and the normal pitch of the instrument's "A" -- 440 or 415 or whatever. Often the number of notes is given, too. Other items you may see in a description include miscellaneous features such such as lute, buff, peau de bouffle or nasale stops, transposing keyboard, aligned/non-aligned, etc.

How to read the description of a harpsichord:

For instance, this is the "official" description of our French double "Muguette":

French Double Harpsichord Claviers Baroques (Toronto) 1995 after Taskin 1769; traditional dark green and red with gold bands and trim, FF to g''', 2 x 8' plus 4' and buff, triple transposing (A = 392, 415, or 440).

Translation: This is a harpsichord built in the French style (a specific type of case construction and soundbarring which result in a distinctive full "organlike" sound) with two manuals (keyboards) which was built by Claviers Baroques of Toronto (that's us!) and completed in 1995. The word "after" means it is sort of a copy of an original instrument, in this case a specific one built by the famous French builder Pascal Taskin (b1723-d1793) which is dated 1769. This is a fairly famous old instrument and one of the first of the historic harpsichords to be extensively studied and copied by modern scholars and builders. It is currently in the Russell Collection of Early Keyboard Instruments, in Edinborough, Scotland, who have more information about it on their website. Our instrument is based on the studies and drawings of this instrument done by one of the great pioneers of modern harpsichord building, Frank Hubbard. His book, Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making, (Cambridge, Mass., 1965), is the foundation of our modern knowledge of historical harpsichord building and a good reference book for anyone who owns a harpsichord or who would like to know more about them.

The decoration of the harpsichord is described, in this case we used the "basic" decoration that the 1769 Taskin and most harpsichords of its time would have had when they were first made: red paint on the inside and dark green paint on the outside, with gold bands on the cheek, bentside and tail. Since harpsichords are fairly durable, and fairly visible, they tended to get repainted over the years as decorating styles changed. Many harpsichords in museums have elaborate decoration, beautiful painting on the case, perhaps a painting on the inside of the lid, and fancy stands. Most of this decoration is decades, sometimes centuries, younger than the harpsichord itself.

The compass is 63 notes, low F to high g, described in Helmholtz notation. This is the largest keyboard found on an "historic" harpsichord, and sufficient to play all the repertoire including Forqueray, which frequently requires the low F (because it is actually transcriptions of gamba music, but that is a story for another time).

The disposition is 2x8' plus 4' and buff. This means that for each of the 63 notes there are two strings at normal pitch (same as the 8' register on an organ, which referred to the length of the organ pipe) and one set of strings at 4', which would, of course, sound one octave higher. This shorter set of strings does not run the full length of the harpsichord, there is a piece of wood under the soundboard about 1/2 way that they hitch off to. These sets of strings can be played separately or in various combinations to give different sounds, and you can set one manual to play, say , the back 8' and the other to play, say both 8's and the 4' (aka "full up") and by switching between manuals you can get contrast in volume, which is about as close as the average player can get to dynamics on a harpsichord. The buff or buff-stop is a strip of wood which sits under the strings near the nut and which has pieces of felt or leather glued onto it. It can be shoved over so that the pieces of felt touch the strings to produce a muted sound, like a lute, and for this reason is sometimes called a lute-stop. The two sets of 8' strings sound different from each other, too, although it is more subtle. One set of jacks is about 3/4" farther away from the nut than the other (ie, closer to the centre of the string), so the back 8' sounds fuller than the front 8'. This concept is confusing to pianists, but harpists and other string players understand.

The keyboard transposes, or changes between pitches. Double transposing, from A=440Hz to A=415Hz, is fairly common with French doubles. Our Muguette is a triple transposer, in this case from A=440 (modern concert pitch), to A=415 (standard "baroque" pitch) to A=392hz (sort of an ultra baroque pitch, used occassionally in Europe, only rarely in North America). We do this by making the keyboard two keys narrower than the front of the case where it sits. There are spacers ("transposing blocks") to hold the keyboard in tight. Say we are at the middle position, 415. In this position there will be one transposing block on either side of the keyboard. To transpose up to 440, we remove the transposing block on the treble end, slide the keyboard to the right (= toward the treble) and put the block back to fill the gap which has appeared on the bass end. This moves all the keys so they are now under the string that was formerly to their right. The "A" key that formerly played the string tuned to 415Hz now plays the string one semi-tone up, 440. Clever! Transposing does come at a cost, though, and may screw up the voicing.

Last updated March 6, 2002 -- this FAQ will continue to grow as we answer more of your frequently-asked questions.

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last updated November 13, 2007