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Harpsichord 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.

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.

How would I determine which of the earlier instruments to consider for purchase? Are there any good books on harpsichords?

The array of early keyboard instruments does seem bewildering. Perhaps the easiest way to thread ones way through them is to relate them to the type of music that was written for them, and to chose your harpsichord based on the music you wish to play. In an ideal world I would recommend that everyone have a French or Flemish double, an Italian single, a virginal, a spinet and two clavichords, one large and one small, to play everything "properly". There are a few, not many professionals who have this many instruments, but I know several amateurs who do!

The French double is the what most people mean by harpsichord. It will have two manuals, usually 61 to 63 notes per, three sets of strings (two pairs for each note at regular pitch, one set is half-length, which sounds an octave higher), three or more choirs of jacks and a coupling mechanism so that the sets can be switched in and out of play for a fuller effect. This is a late type of instrument, historically (1720's to French revolution), they tended to be owned by the aristocracy who had professional players to play them. They typically have heavy cases with strong interior bracing. Only the very late French solo repertoire requires it -- Forqueray, Balbastre, Francois Couperin, etc. -- and it is technically very demanding, like the virtuoso piano repertoire of today.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Italian single, a small instrument. One keyboard of four octaves and a bit -- 52 notes is lots --, single or double-strung in brass is most typical, but some two-manual instruments are attested. Italian instruments are lightly built, very like guitars. The main structural member is the bottom, the walls are very thin. They are so small that many people do not take them seriously, but they are very real instruments. Our Italian single Orlando has been played in large halls many times, by Il Giardino Armonico and in ensembles accompanying Cecilia Bartoli, to name but a few, and he only weigh 35 lbs. The brass stringing produces a bright sparkling sound. A small harpsichord was the mainstay of any baroque ensemble, and was usually played by the leader. Together with a bass instrument or two it would play continuo, that is, the rhythmic and harmonic support, for melody instruments single or in various combinations. Italian harpsichords are the instruments that Scarlatti, Vivaldi, etc. wrote for, and to my mind this music sound best on them. These instruments were very popular right from the beginning of harpsichords, in the 15th century through the end of harpsichords in the late 18th century. There is a ton of music for them, at all skill levels, as these instruments were used by people to relax with at home, to play for their own pleasure and that of their families and friends. Early French instruments were similar to the Italians, but with even lighter internal structure, they mostly self-destructed. There is a lot of French music, however, that is written for this smaller single-manual instrument, nearly anything up to 1740 and a lot writitten after that -- Louis Couperin, for example.

The other "old" tradition is the northern, particularly the Flemish, but also German. The best-known Flemish builders are the Ruckers family of Antwerp. Flemish instruments are typically more heavily built than the Italian, perhaps to stand the damper climate. The case is braced internally and the bottom is put on last, structurally it could be omitted. The Flemish used iron wire as well as brass in their instruments. This style of construction results in a different sound and allows the instruments to be made larger. The French were particulary fond of it, and the French style grew out of the Flemish. The Flemish made singles, doubles and virginals (of the type called muselars), the keyboards came in various sizes. Really! Thrifty Dutch harpsichord owners would take their instruemnts back to the shop to be refitted with more extensive keyboards, this is called a ravelment. The keys were made narrower to accomodate the increased range and sometimes the case would be made wider as well (grand ravelment). The Flemish decoration was fairly exuberant, some say gauche while the French, predictabley, tended more to understated elegance. Whatever the original decoration, most harpsichords got repainted regularly whenever the livingroom was redecorated, much like today. The examples we see in museums are usuall sporting paint jobs a century or more younger than the instrument itself.

The virginal seems to have been originally a personal instrument, it has a quieter tone and takes up less space. Both the Italians and the Flemish built them. Some writers seem to think that it was primarily a lady's instrument, the sort of thing that the young woman of the house would have in her room to practice on and to entertain her friends whilst sewing or painting or however genteel young ladies passed the time until they married, but there is a wealth of music written for these little thing which is not so genteel. My theory is that they were the home entertainment centre, with the lady of the house often being the designated player, but guests and visiting musicians would certainly take their turns. The Fitzwilliam virginal book (2 volumes) , Eliz. Rogers Hir Virginall Booke, and My Lady Nevells Virginal Music, all published by Dover Press, are available at less than $20 US each. They were originally hand-written books of music collected much as one would collect recipes today, some written out by the lady herself, others by the music-master, others gifts from friends or guests. The pieces vary in length and complexity. The composers include Dowland, Gibbons, Bull and Byrd, as well as the ever-popular anon. There are large suites, like the battle pieces, that would have been a whole evening's entertainment, especially if acted out by the kids, to little ditties like Farnaby's "Toy" -- just 16 delightful bars -- and lots and lots of songs and dances. No lyrics are given, presumably the audience knew them already, but they are available from other sources, if wanted, and they are often quite bawdy.

The spinet is an odd little beast and particularly British. When Cromwell came to power in England the prevailing harpsichord trend was northern, mostly Flemish and German instruments, although there were some Italian virginals mentionned in an inventory of Henry VIII's furniture. Under Cromwell music (and a lot of other things) pretty well died; harpsichords and other musical instruments disappeared. When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660 he brought with him two Italian harpsichord builders who established an an Italian building style and trained English apprentices. The two offshoots of this are the spinet, which appeared shortly after, some attribute it directly to Zente, and the sturdy little British single, not much known here. Both the regular and the spinet have generally Italian size and shape and are built from the bottom, but have more internal bracing than Italians, probably to withstand the damp climate. The main difference between the two is that the spinet has its keyboard set into the bentside, which saves on wallspace and the lid sits so that the sound comes back to the player. Player, Haward, and Keene, well-known builders of the time, built both spinets and regular configuration harpsichords. It appears from contemporary writings that the spinet was the choice for home music. Thomas Locke, whose parents wanted their son to be a lawyer, not a musician, is reported to have practiced in the attic "on a muffled spinet". The regular configuration would be used by professional musicians, such as Purcell, for performance. The nearest thing to a British single of this type that I know of is our Canadian single. We find the heavier internal bracing make for an instrument that has a full voice and keeps its tune well. The British went on to make larger instruments, double and even triple manual instruments, there was also much German influence. The British decoration is generally veneer and inlay rather than paint.

Clavichords are a whole other thing and also come in a wide range of sizes and styles. They were popular throughout Europe, and persisted longest in Germany. The earliest records are of small things a lot like breadboards with strings on top, the late clavichords are big and beautiful, they look like square grand pianos and have enough notes to play Beethoven. These, too, are personal instruments, they do not produce enough volume for public performance. This often confuses modern keyboard players. Playing a clavichord is like reading for pleasure or taking a bubble-bath; you don't need an audience to enjoy it. They never get really loud but they are extremely expressive, an ideal instrument for quiet music-making. They are considerate instruments in apartments or houses where a piano would intrude on family or neighbors.

A book I recommend is The Harpsichord Owner's Guide, a Manual for Buyers and Owners, by Edward L. Kottick Amazon lists it for $27.50 in paperback. It is an excellent introduction to the harpsichord, which covers its workings, history, present state, and the issues surrounding the acquisition of one, including choosing and instrument and then tuning and maintaining it.

I agree with most of what he says, but I have two quibbles, both on page 66 --
1.) in discussing the choice of a harpsichord to purchase, he talks about the "regulation" of an instrument as if it were fixed for a given harpsichord. The touch of a harpsichord -- keydip, stagger and touch -- can be adjusted within reason (this is what regulation is!), and an otherwise suitable instrument should not be dismissed if the touch is not to one's taste, rather the builder should be asked if there can be more/less keydip, lighter, heavier touch, whatever. and
2.) he states that a reliable builder may ask for a small deposit for a custom instrument. There are a number of fine builders who have never forgiven Ed for this statement. You will find that the industry standard is 30% deposit, this is even true for kits such as The Paris Workshop and Zuckermann.

Which instrument to choose? Ideally, one should form ones judgement by experience, seeing, hearing and playing many examples of the various kinds and qualities. In the normal course of things, there are not enough harpsichords in one place to do this. To see, hear and play the largest number and variety of harpsichords in one place, I recommend The Boston Early Music Festival and Exhibition (BEMFE), held biennially in early June, http://www.bemf.org/2003.html. Builders from around the world (including us!) bring their instruments to show, and hopefully, to sell. The instruments are all available to be played, there are room concerts by professionals on the same instruments. It is a wonderful place to inform your judgement and hear a lot of great music at the same time.

Last updated August 4, 2002 -- this FAQ will continue to grow as we answer more of your frequently-asked questions.







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