1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Harpsichord
HARPSICHORD, Harpsicon, double virginals (Fr. clavecin; Ger. Clavicymbel, Kiel-Flügel; Ital. arpicordo, cembalo, clavicembalo, gravecembalo; Dutch, clavisinbal), a large keyboard instrument (see Pianoforte), belonging to the same family as the virginal and spinet, but having 2, 3, or even 4 strings to each note, and a case of the harp or wing shape, afterwards adopted for the grand pianoforte. J. S. Bach’s harpsichord, preserved in the museum of the Hochschule für Musik at Charlottenburg, has two manuals and 4 strings to each note, one 16 ft., two 8 ft. and one 4 ft. By means of stops the performer has within his power a number of combinations for varying the tone and dynamic power. In all instruments of the harpsichord family the strings, instead of being struck by tangents as in the clavichord, or by hammers as in the pianoforte, are plucked by means of a quill firmly embedded in the centred tongue of a jack or upright placed on the back end of the key-lever. When the finger depresses a key, the jack is thrown up, and in passing the crow-quill catches the string and twangs it. It is this twanging of the string which produces the brilliant incisive tone peculiar to the harpsichord family. What these instruments gain in brilliancy of tone, however, they lose in power of expression and of accent. The impossibility of commanding any emphasis necessarily created for the harpsichord an individual technique which influenced the music composed for it to so great an extent that it cannot be adequately rendered upon the pianoforte.
The harpsichord assumed a position of great importance during the 16th and 17th centuries, more especially in the orchestra, which was under the leadership of the harpsichord player. The most famous of all harpsichord makers, whose names form a guarantee for excellence, were the Ruckers, established at Antwerp from the last quarter of the 16th century. (K. S.)