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Title: Harpsichords and Clavichords
Author: Hoover, Cynthia A.
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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   _Harpsichords and Clavichords_


   _Cover: Virginal by Giovanni Battista Boni, 1617_ (_see pages 22-25_)
   _Photo: Robert Lautman_

   _For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing
    Office Washington, D.C. 20402 Price 40 cents_

_Harpsichords and Clavichords_

The harpsichord and the clavichord represent the two most important
types of stringed keyboard instruments used from the 15th through the
18th centuries. By the 19th century, the piano had become the most
important domestic keyboard instrument.

In this booklet are described a few of the restored Smithsonian
harpsichords and clavichords that are occasionally on exhibit in the
Hall of Musical Instruments or in use in the series of concerts
sponsored by the Division of Musical Instruments. Models showing how the
sound is produced on these instruments are also on exhibit.

A complete list of the keyboard collection is found in _A Checklist of
Keyboard Instruments at the Smithsonian Institution_ (Washington, 1967),
which is available from the Division of Musical Instruments, Smithsonian
Institution, Washington, D.C. 20560.


The harpsichord and its smaller relatives, the virginal and the spinet,
have strings that are _plucked_. The harpsichord is wing-shaped, most
virginals and spinets are either rectangular or polygonal.

When the harpsichord key is pressed, a wooden jack is raised so that a
quill or leather plectrum inserted into the jack tongue plucks the
string. When the key is released, the jack falls back into place, the
pivoted tongue allowing the plectrum to pass the string without plucking
it. A felt damper (inserted in a slit at the top of the jack) touches
the string to stop the sound.

Figure 1 shows the jack arrangement in an 18th century English spinet.
The second jack from the left on the front row has been raised so that
its quill is just about to pluck the string. Note that the quill has
lifted the string above its rest position.

Inherent in the design of a harpsichord is the limitation of dynamic
nuance. The sound of a harpsichord is not greatly altered by increasing
or lessening the impact of fingers on the keys. Rather, the dynamic
level and quality of sound can be changed by varying the number of
strings plucked (many harpsichords have three sets of strings: two sets
tuned in unison [8′] and a third tuned an octave higher [4′]), by
varying the location of the plucking point, and by muting the strings
with felt or leather pads.

The tone of a keyboard instrument is also affected by its general
outline, the material and thickness of the soundboard, the length and
material of the strings, and the type of case construction. The case
must be strong enough to counteract the tension of the strings and yet
light enough to allow the sound to resonate.

[Illustration: 1. Harpsichord action. _Photo: Robert Lautman._]

Among the Smithsonian’s extensive keyboard collection are fine examples
of harpsichords that represent several of the major national trends in
harpsichord building: the Flemish, Italian, English, and French.

_Flemish Harpsichords_

Antwerp was the harpsichord-making center of northern Europe during the
16th and 17th centuries. The earliest examples of harpsichords had only
one keyboard and one or two sets of 8′ strings. The progressive Flemish
makers added a second keyboard and another set of strings, tuned an
octave higher than the others, which allowed a wider range in pitch and
more variety in sound. Later French and English harpsichords were
largely derived from the Flemish style.

Virginal, _1620; made by Andreas Ruckers, Antwerp One manual;
Range C/E-c³ (apparent); 1×8′_

[Illustration: 2. Ruckers virginal: Plan view.]

[Illustration: 3. Ruckers virginal: Full view.]

[Illustration: 4. Ruckers virginal: Detail of keyboard.
_Photo: Robert Lautman_]

[Illustration: 5. Ruckers virginal: View of soundboard and lid.
_Photo: Robert Lautman_]

Instruments built by the famous Ruckers family were and are still highly
prized. Although simply painted on the exterior, the case of this
virginal is decorated on the inside in characteristic Ruckers style.
Block-printed papers cover the interior of the case; the inside of
the lid bears a Latin motto and the soundboard is painted with flowers
and arabesques. Figure 4 illustrates a detail of the block printing, and
of the keys. The arcades on the end of the keys appear to be cut from
several layers of leather which were then applied to the key fronts.

This instrument is tuned a fourth higher than it might appear. When the
C key is pressed, the note sounded is F, a fourth above.

_Short-Octave Tuning_

Since chromatic notes in the lowest octave of the keyboard were not
often needed in the music of the 16th and 17th centuries, the practice
of short-octave tuning was adopted.

Although the lowest note on a short-octave instrument appears to be E,
the range was actually extended down to C. (The notation C/E indicates
this arrangement.)

[Illustration: NORMAL TUNING]


A typical short-octave instrument of the 16th and 17th centuries would
be tuned in the following manner: E (1) is tuned down to C (I); F♯ (2)
tuned to D (II); and G♯ (3) tuned to E (III).

Harpsichord, _1745; made by Johann Daniel Dulcken, Antwerp Two manuals;
Range FF-f³; 2×8v, 1×4′, lute_

Typical of northern European instruments, the Dulcken harpsichord has a
heavy case, two keyboards or manuals, and two 8′ choirs and one 4′
choir. It also has a lute stop, whose jacks, very close to the nut,
pluck one set of unison strings to produce a pungent, nasal tone.

[Illustration: 6. Dulcken harpsichord: Full view.
_Photo: Robert Lautman_.]

[Illustration: 7. Front view. _Photo: Robert Lautman_.]

[Illustration: 8. Dulcken harpsichord: Plan view.]

[Illustration: 9. Dulcken harpsichord: Detail of keyboards.
_Photo: Robert Lautman_]

[Illustration: 10. Dulcken harpsichord: Detail of soundboard.
_Photo: Robert Lautman_]

_Italian Harpsichords_

Typical Italian harpsichords had two choirs of unison strings and two
jacks for each key. They were of much lighter construction than those
made in northern Europe—the sides of the case were only about an eighth
of an inch thick. These fragile instruments were usually placed in
heavier, often elaborately decorated, outer cases from which the
harpsichord could be removed.

Harpsichord, _1693; maker unknown, Italy One manual; Range GG-c³ (no
GG♯); 2×8′_

The typical construction of Italian harpsichords can be seen in this
large Italian instrument. The original nameboard is missing; however, as
was common practice, the maker marked the date on the tail of the lowest
and highest keys.

The Italian harpsichord serves as an ideal _basso continuo_ keyboard
instrument because it blends well in instrumental combinations. Its
clean, crisp sound also allows individual lines to emerge clearly from a
polyphonic musical texture.

[Illustration: 11. Italian harpsichord (1693): Full view of instrument
in outer case.]

[Illustration: 12. Italian harpsichord (1693): Plan view.]

[Illustration: 13. Detail of keyboard. _Photo: Robert Lautman_.]

Harpsichord, _1694; made by Nicolaus DeQuoco, Italy One-manual: Range
C-c³ (no C♯); 2×8′, 1×4′_

This instrument is one of the few examples of an Italian harpsichord
with a third set of strings tuned an octave higher than the two unison
choirs. It is possible that the third set was added to this instrument
sometime after it was constructed with two unison registers.

Figure 15 shows the instrument before restoration; Figures 14 and 16
show the restored harpsichord removed from its heavy outer case and
details of the handsome keyboard and moldings typical of Italian

[Illustration: 14. DeQuoco harpsichord: Plan view.]

[Illustration: 15. DeQuoco harpsichord: Full view of instrument in outer

[Illustration: 16. DeQuoco harpsichord:
View of instrument removed from outer case.]

[Illustration: 17. DeQuoco harpsichord:
Inscription on wrest plank.]

[Illustration: 18. DeQuoco harpsichord:
Detail of keyboard. _Photo: Robert Lautman_.]

Virginal, _1617; made by Giovanni Battista Boni, Cortona One manual;
Range C/E-f³; 1×8′_

The smaller virginals and spinets were commonly found in homes of modest
means, as well as in royal courts. This polygonal virginal has six split
keys which represent a complicated tuning scheme.

[Illustration: 21. Tuning scheme.]

Keys 1-2: This is a system of short-octave tuning (see Ruckers Virginal)
in which the two lowest accidentals are split into two sections. The
back section is tuned to the apparent accidental, the front section to
the short octave. Thus, on the Boni, the back section of the bottom
split key is tuned F♯, the front section is tuned D; the back section of
the second lowest split key is tuned A♭, the front section is tuned E.

Keys 3-6: The top four keys are split to provide for enharmonic
tuning—that is, both D♭ and E♭, G♯ and A♭. In the meantone system of
tuning, which was the prevailing tuning of the time, scales distant from
the key of C were often out of tune. To improve the intonation of these
scales, some makers divided some of the accidental keys to provide
alternate tunings.

[Illustration: 19. Boni virginal: Full view.]

[Illustration: 20. Boni virginal: Plan view.]

[Illustration: 21. Boni virginal: View of keyboard.
_Photo: Robert Lautman_.]

_English Harpsichords_

In the 18th century, London became a center of harpsichord making. The
two most important makers, Jacob Kirckman and Burkat Shudi, were Swiss
immigrants who first apprenticed with Hermann Tabel, a Flemish
harpsichord maker who had also emigrated to England. In America, where
English culture was highly regarded, Thomas Jefferson owned a Kirckman
harpsichord, Francis Hopkinson a Shudi and Broadwood.

The heavy cases of the typical English instruments were veneered in
walnut, mahogany, and later satinwood, and rested on trestle stands. The
usual range was five octaves: FF-f³ for harpsichords; GG-g³ for
spinets (and organs). In general, the sound produced on an English
harpsichord is more thick and lush than the sound of instruments from
other European centers.

Spinet, _about 1710; made by Thomas Hitchcock, London One manual; Range
GG-g³; 1×8′_

The spinet, a member of the harpsichord family, was a popular domestic
keyboard instrument in England and America during the 18th century and
was mentioned in many American diaries and inventories of that time. The
spinet often served as the keyboard instrument for the household that
could not afford or did not have room for the harpsichord or organ.

The Hitchcock family supplied many spinets for early 18th-century
gentility. Note in Figure 24 the handsome brass hinges, one of many
examples of the beautiful hardware used by English builders. This
instrument is quilled with crow quill, the most common material used for
plectra at that time. A detail of the jacks and stringing is shown in
Figure 1.

[Illustration: 22. Hitchcock spinet: Full view and nameboard.]

[Illustration: 23. Hitchcock spinet: Plan view.]

[Illustration: 24. Hitchcock spinet: Top view. _Photo: Robert Lautman_.]

Harpsichord, _about 1743; made by Burkat Shudi, London Two manuals;
Range FF-f³ (no FF♯); 2×8′, 1×4′, lute, buff_

Most of the stops on early harpsichords were changed by hand. From left
to right, the stop knobs shown in Figure 25 operate the following
registers: _lute_, _octave_ (4′), _buff_ (muting the second unison by
pressing soft leather pads against the strings), _first unison_ (8′),
and _second unison_ (8′). The lute stop plays from the upper manual, the
first unison from both manuals, and the remaining stops from the lower

Figures 25 and 26 show the instrument before restoration. The name
batten on which the date of 1747 appears is not original to the
instrument. The date of the instrument is based on the serial number 144
stamped on the lower keyboard. From all records it appears Shudi would
have built an instrument with that serial number in 1743.

[Illustration: 25. Shudi harpsichord: View of keyboards.]

[Illustration: 26. Shudi harpsichord: Plan view.]

[Illustration: 27. Shudi harpsichord: Full view.]

_French Harpsichords_

Although Paris claimed many harpsichord builders, few French
harpsichords remain today. Many were destroyed at the time of the
Revolution and later when firewood was needed to heat Conservatoire

French builders, the most famous among them the Blanchet family and
Pascal Taskin, spent much of their time reconstructing Ruckers
harpsichords to satisfy the musical and decorative tastes of
18th-century France. Included in this reconstruction or _ravalement_
were the extension of compass (usually from C-c³ to FF-f³),
enlargement of the case and soundboard, and often replacement of
keyboards, jacks, and registers.

Housed in elegantly painted cases supported by cabriole or fluted legs,
typical French harpsichords had two manuals and were praised for their
lightness of touch. Later 18th-century developments included a fourth
register called _peau de buffle_ (plectra of soft chamois-type leather)
and knee levers to operate the registers.

Harpsichord, _1760; made by Benoist Stehlin, Paris Two manuals; Range
FF-f³; 2×8′, 1×4v, buff, shove coupler_

In recent years the Smithsonian was fortunate to acquire one of the few
remaining French harpsichords. The builder’s name is known from the
design on the soundboard rose which includes the initials “B” and “S”;
also, the name “Benoist Stehlin” is inscribed on two of the jacks. The
1760 date is painted on the left side of the soundboard. An inventory of
Stehlin’s workshop and house made at the time of his death in 1774 lists
a Ruckers harpsichord altered by Stehlin along with several other
instruments in various stages of completion. Figures 28 and 30 show the
instrument before its restoration.

[Illustration: 28. Stehlin harpsichord: Full view.]

This instrument was restored to playing condition in the conservation
laboratory of the Division of Musical Instruments in 1968. Typical of
most French instruments, it is equipped with a shove coupler, which
enables the player to operate both manuals from the lower keyboard by
shoving the upper keyboard away from him. In this pushed-back position,
wooden uprights (dogs) attached to the upper surface of the far ends of
the lower key levers couple the two manuals and cause the upper manual
keys to descend when the lower manual keys are pressed.

[Illustration: 29. Stehlin harpsichord: Detail of rose.]

[Illustration: 30. Stehlin harpsichord: Plan view.]


Dynamic shadings are possible in the clavichord, as in the piano,
through variation of finger pressure. In both, the strings are struck—by
metal tangents in the clavichord and by leather or felt hammers in the

In the clavichord the strings extend over a soundboard bridge on the
player’s right and are damped (stopped from vibrating) by strips of
cloth on the left. The metal hammer (tangent) mounted in the end of the
key strikes the string and continues to touch it as long as the player
presses the key. The tangent, while touching the string, divides it into
two segments—the segment on the right being free to vibrate, the segment
on the left being damped by the cloth. When the key is released, the
cloth damps the entire string.

Figure 31 shows a player depressing a clavichord key (middle c). The
tangent at the far end of the key lever has been raised so that it has
struck the strings and has lifted them above rest position. The damping
cloth on the left of this raised string can also be seen.

Known as early as the 15th century, the clavichord produces tones,
though limited in volume, that are very expressive and even capable of
vibrato (_Bebung_). Because it lacks carrying power, the clavichord
historically was a solo or practice instrument, for it could not be
heard in combination with other instruments or with the voice.

[Illustration: 31. Clavichord action. _Photo: Robert Lautman_.]

Fretted Clavichord, _about 1700; maker unknown, Germany_

Unfretted Clavichord, _18th century; maker unknown, Germany_

The clavichord was usually housed in a rectangular case which rested
upon a simple stand. The range of the earlier instruments was about four
octaves. By the 18th century the range had been expanded to five

The larger, later clavichords had separate strings for each key and were
unfretted or _bundfrei_. Many smaller and earlier clavichords were
fretted (_gebunden_), having some strings that would produce more than
one pitch when struck at different points by adjacent keys.

Figure 32 shows the fretted clavichord keyboard in more detail. Tangents
on keys numbered 16 and 17 strike the same strings to produce the notes
e♭ and e. Some other fretted notes shown in the picture include: keys 18
and 19 (f and f♯), keys 20 and 21 (g and g♯]), keys 23 and 24 (b♭ and
b), and keys 25 and 26 (middle c and c♯). Figure 31 is also a detail
from this clavichord.

The Smithsonian clavichord shown in Figures 35 and 36, in unrestored
condition, is typical of the large unfretted instruments that became
standard in Germany by the mid-18th century and for which Carl Philipp
Emanuel Bach wrote many solo keyboard compositions.

[Illustration: 32. Fretted clavichord: Detail of fretting.
_Photo: Robert Lautman_.]

[Illustration: 33. Fretted clavichord: Full view.]

[Illustration: 34. Fretted clavichord: Plan view.]

[Illustration: 35. Unfretted clavichord: Full view.]

[Illustration: 36. Unfretted clavichord: Plan view.]

By the beginning of the 18th century the desire was strong for a more
expressive keyboard instrument to use in ensembles. Harpsichord builders
added new stops, devised special leather plectra, and added Venetian
swell effects and other innovations to alter the sound of the
harpsichord. But no matter what they did, they could not produce enough
dynamic gradation to satisfy musical taste. The clavichord was capable
of dynamic nuance, but it lacked carrying power.

Instrument builders, seeking to satisfy the demands created by the
change in sensibility and musical taste, turned naturally to the
domestic instruments they knew best—the harpsichord and clavichord—as
the process of adaptation began. For this reason, as the pianoforte was
developed and perfected, the general proportions and arrangement of the
grand piano resembled those of the harpsichord. Similarly, the relation
between the keyboard and strings, the scaling, and other features of the
square piano resembled those of the clavichord.

By the beginning of the 19th century the pianoforte, an instrument
capable of subtle changes between soft and loud, had become the most
important domestic and concert keyboard instrument. After 1800 few
clavichords or harpsichords were built or used until they were revived
by early music enthusiasts at the end of the 19th century.

_Selected Bibliography_

BOALCH, DONALD. _Makers of the Harpsichord and Clavichord_. London:
George Ronald, 1955.

HIRT, FRANZ JOSEF. _Meisterwerke des Klavierbaus_. Olten, Switzerland:
Urs Graf-Verlag, 1955.

HUBBARD, FRANK. _Harpsichord Regulating and Repairing_. Boston: Tuner’s
Supply, Inc., 1963.

HUBBARD, FRANK. _Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making_. Cambridge,
Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1965.

JAMES, PHILIP. _Early Keyboard Instruments_. London: Peter Davies, 1930.

RIPIN, EDWIN M. “The Early Clavichord,” _Musical Quarterly_, 53(4)
(October 1967): 518-538.

RUSSELL, RAYMOND. _The Harpsichord and the Clavichord_. London: Faber
and Faber, 1959.

SHORTRIDGE, JOHN D. “Italian Harpsichord-Building in the 16th and 17th
Centuries.”‮ _United States National Museum Bulletin_, 225 (15): 93-107,

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