A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Harpsichord

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HARPSICHORD (Fr. Clavecin; Ital. Clavicembalo, Gravicembalo, not unfrequently Cembalo only, also Harpicordo; Germ. Clavicymbel, Kielflügel, Flügel). The most important of the group of keyed instruments that preceded the pianoforte, holding during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries a position analogous to that now accorded to the grand pianoforte. It had a place in the orchestra as an accompanying instrument when the first opera and the first oratorio were performed (Florence and Rome, about A.D. 1600), and during the time of Handel and Bach was the constant support to the recitativo secco, its weak bass notes being reinforced by large lutes and viols, and ultimately by violoncellos and double basses. Towards the end of the 18th century the instrument was withdrawn[1], and the big fiddles were left by themselves to accompany the ordinary recitative in a fashion more peculiar than satisfactory.

The name harpsichord is the English variant of the original harpicordo, which, like clavicembalo, clavicordo, spinetto [App. p.668 "spinetta"], and pianoforte, betrays its Italian origin. The clavicordo was a table-shaped, five-cornered harpicordo, rectangular, like the German clavichord, but otherwise quite different from that instrument, which was made to sound by 'tangents,' or simple brass uprights from the keys. All instruments of the harpsichord, clavicembalo, or spinet family were on the plectrum principle, and therefore were incapable of dynamic modification of tone by difference of touch. The strings were set in vibration by points of quill or hard leather, elevated on wooden uprights, known as jacks, and twitching or plucking them as the depression of the keys caused the points to pass upwards. [Jack.] Leather points were probably used first [App. p.668 "The Correr upright spinet or clavicytherium that was in the Music Loan Collection at Kensington, 1885, now the property of Mr. G. Donaldson of London, is perhaps the oldest instrument of the harpsichord and spinet kind in existence. This instrument preserves traces of brass plectra, not leather. See Spinet vol. iii. p. 651a, footnote."], since we learn from Scaliger, who lived 1484–1550 (Poetices, lib. i. cap. 48), that crowquills were introduced in keyed instruments subsequent to his boyhood, and he informs us that through them the name 'spinet' (from spine, a thorn or point) became applied to what had been known as the 'clavicymbal' and 'harpichord.' The Canon Paul Belisonius, of Pavia, is said to have introduced quills: the use of leather is shown in a harpsichord by Baffo, dated A.D. 1574, and presently to be referred to; and in one by the elder Andreas Ruckers of Antwerp, dated A.D. 1614, now in the possession of Col. Hopkinson.

It is the principle of the plectrum that derives the descent of the harpsichord from the psaltery, just as the pianoforte is derived, by analogy at least, from the dulcimer, and the clavichord from the moveable-bridged monochord; the model for the shape of the long harpsichord being that kind of psaltery which the common people called 'istromento di porco'—from a supposed resemblance between the trapeze form and a pig's head. [See Psaltery.] There is an interesting suggestion of this connection of the harpsichord with the psaltery preserved in the church of the Certosa, near Pavia, built about A.D. 1475. King David, who in the Middle Ages always played a psaltery, is there shown holding an 'istromento di porco.' The body of the psaltery is open, and shows eight keys, lying parallel with the eight strings. David touches the keys with his right hand, and uses the left to damp the strings. All this may be the sculptor's fancy, but Dr. Ambros (Geschichte der Musik, 1864) regards it as a recollection of a real instrument, although obsolete, somewhere seen by him.

The earliest mention of the harpsichord is under the name of clavicymbolum, in the rules of the Minnesingers, by Eberhard Cersne, A.D. 1404. With it occur the clavichord, the monochord and other musical instruments in use at that time. [See Clavichord.] The absence of any prior mention or illustration of keyed stringed instruments is negative evidence only, but it may be assumed to prove their invention to have been shortly before that date say in the latter half of the 14th century, especially as Jean de Muris, writing in A.D. 1323 (Musica speculativa), and enumerating musical instruments, makes no reference to either clavicembalo or clavichord, but describes the monochord (recommending four strings however) as in use for measuring intervals at that time. Moreover there was no music wire before this epoch [App. p.668 "hammered music wire existed but could not have been extensively used"]; the earliest record of wire drawing being A.D. 1351, at Augsburg. It may occur to the reader—why were hammers not sooner introduced after the natural suggestion of the Dulcimer, instead of the field being so long occupied by the less effective jack and tangent contrivances? The chasm untraversable by all forgotten Cristoforis and Schröters was the gap between wrestplank and soundboard, for the passage of the hammers, which weakened the frame and prohibited the introduction of thicker strings strong enough to withstand the impact of hammers. It took more than three hundred years to bridge this chasm by stronger framing, and thus render hammers possible.

As pianofortes have been made in three quite different shapes, the grand, the square, and the upright, there were as many varieties of the jack instruments—to wit, the harpsichord proper (clavicembalo, clavecin, or flügel) of trapeze form; the clavicordo, of oblong or pentangular form, frequently called spinet or virginal; and the upright harpsichord, or clavicytherium. It must be remembered that the long harpsichords were often described as spinet or virginal, from their plectra or their use by young ladies; but the table-shaped ones known commonly by the latter names were never called harpsichords. No specimen of the upright harpsichord seems to exist, yet the instrument has been made in a comparatively recent period, since a receipt for one, dated 1753, and signed by the maker, Samuel Blumer, 'Harpsichord and Spinet Maker in Great Poultney Street, near Golden Square, London. N.B. Late foreman to Mr. Shudi,' is in the possession of Messrs. Broadwood. [App. p.668 "Respecting upright harpsichords, see Upright Grand Piano, vol. iv. p. 208b, l. 1–19."]

We are spared the necessity of reconstructing the older harpsichords from the obscure and often inaccurate allusions of the older writers, such as Virdung and Kircher, by the valuable collection now in South Kensington Museum, that includes instruments of this family dating from A.D. 1555 [App. p.668 "1521"] to Pascal Taskin, A.D. 1786. In private hands, but accessible to the enquirer, are large harpsichords by Tschudi and by Kirkman, still playable. The oldest harpsichord in the Museum is a Venetian clavicembalo [App. p. 668 "For the oldest known harpsichord see Spinet vol. iii. p. 652a, footnote. The second harpsichord mentioned in the footnote, now (1888) belonging to Mr. Hwfa Williams, is not nearly so old as the South Kensington instrument, the date of it being 1626 (not 1526). A restorer has unfortunately altered the interesting long measure keyboard which it lately retained, to the modern chromatic arrangement of the lowest octave"], signed and dated 'Joanes Antonius Baffo, Venetus, 1574.' It has a compass of 4½ octaves, from C to F, the extreme limits of the human voice.
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Raising the top and looking inside, we observe the harp-like disposition of the strings as in a modern grand piano, which led Galilei, the father of the astronomer Galileo, to infer the direct derivation of the harpsichord from the harp. In front, immediately over the keys, is the wrestplank, with the tuning-pins inserted, round which are wound the nearer ends of the strings—in this instrument two to each note—the further ends being attached to hitchpins, driven into the soundboard itself, and following the angle of the bent side of the case to the narrow end, where the longest strings are stretched. There is a straight bridge along the edge of the wrestplank, and a curved bridge upon the soundboard. The strings pass over these bridges, between which they vibrate, and the impulse of their vibrations is communicated by the curved bridge to the soundboard. The plectra or jacks, with the exception that they carry points of leather instead of quill, are the same as in later instruments. [See Jack.] This Venetian harpsichord has a separate case, from which it could be withdrawn for performance, a contrivance usual in Italy, the outer case being frequently adorned with painting. The raised blocks on each side the keys, by which the instrument was drawn out of the case, survived long after, when there was no outer case. Lastly, the natural keys are white and the sharps black, the rule in Italian keyed instruments, the German practice having been the reverse.

Reference to the oblong 'clavicordi,' in which South Kensington Museum is rich, will be found under Spinet. The actual workmanship of all these Italian keyed instruments was indifferent; we must turn to the Netherlands for that care in manipulation and choice of materials which, united with constructive ingenuity equalling that of the best Italian artists, culminated in the Double Harpsichords of the Ruckers family of Antwerp.[2] [See Ruckers.]

Of this family there were four members living and working between 1579 and 1651 or later, who achieved great reputation. Their instruments are known by their signatures; and by the monograms forming the ornamental rosette or soundhole in the soundboard—a survival from the psaltery. The great improvement of the harpsichord is attributed to Hans, the eldest, who, by adding to the two unison strings of each note a third of shorter length and finer wire tuned an octave higher, increased the power and brilliancy of the tone. To employ this addition at will, alone, or with one or both the unison strings, he contrived, after the example of the organ, a second keyboard, and stops to be moved by the hand, for the control of the registers or slides of jacks acting upon the strings. By these expedients all the legitimate variety ever given to the instrument was secured. The Ruckers harpsichord given by Messrs. Broadwood to South Kensington Museum, signed and dated 'Andreas Ruckers me fecit Antverpiæ 1651' (see next page), said to have been left by Handel to Christopher Smith, shows these additions to the construction, and was, in the writer's remembrance, before the soundboard gave way, of deliciously soft and delicately reedy timbre. The tension being comparatively small, these harpsichords lasted much longer than our modern pianofortes, even of the best construction. James Shudi Broadwood ('Notes,' 1838) states that many Ruckers harpsichords were in existence and good condition until nearly the end of the last century, and fetched high prices; one having sold in 1770 for 3000 francs (£120).

When the Ruckers family passed away we hear no more of Antwerp as the city of harpsichord makers; London and Paris took up the tale. But all these Antwerp workmen belonged of right to the Guild of St. Luke, the artist's corporation, to which they were in the first instance introduced by the practice of ornamenting their instruments with painting and carving. In 1557 ten of the Antwerp harpsichord makers petitioned the deans and masters of the guild to be admitted without submitting masterpieces, and the chiefs of the commune consenting, in the next year they were received. The responsibility of signing their work was perhaps the foundation of the great reputation afterwards enjoyed by Antwerp for harpsichords and similar musical instruments. ('Recherches,' etc., Léon de Burbure, Brussels, 1863.)

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The earliest historical mention of the harpsichord in England occurs under the name of Claricymball, A.D. 1502. The late Dr. Rimbault ('The Pianoforte,' London 1860) collected this and other references to old keyed instruments from records of Privy Purse expenses and from contemporary poets. The house-proverbs of Leckingfield, the residence of Algernon Percy in the time of Henry VII, preserved (for the house was burnt) in a MS. in the British Museum, named it 'clarisymbalis.' For a long while after this, if the instrument existed, it was known under a general name, as 'virginalls.' It was the school of Ruckers, transferred to this country by a Fleming named Tabel, that was the real basis of harpsichord making as a distinct business in this country, separating it from organ building with which it had been, as in Flanders, often combined. Tabel's pupils, Burkhard Tschudi (anglicé Shudi) and Jacob Kirchmann (anglicé Kirkman), became famous in the last century, developing the harpsichord in the direction of power and majesty of tone to the farthest limit. The difference in length between a Ruckers and a Shudi or Kirkman harpsichord,—viz. from 6 or 7½ feet to nearly 9 feet, is in direct proportion to this increase of power. Stronger framing and thicker stringing helped in the production of their pompous, rushing-sounding instruments. Perhaps Shudi's were the longest, as he carried his later instruments down to C in the bass, while Kirkman remained at F; but the latter set up one row
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of jacks with leather instead of quills, and with due increase in the forte combination. Shudi, in his last years (A.D. 1769), patented a Venetian Swell, an adaptation from the organ to the harpsichord [App. p.668 "correct statement as to the Venetian swell being an adaptation from the organ, by Shudi, vol. iii. p. 489b, l. 37–45"]. Kirkman added a pedal to raise a portion of the top or cover. Both used two pedals; the one for the swell, the other by an external lever apparatus to shut off the octave and one of the unison registers, leaving the player with both hands free, an invention of John Hayward's, described in Mace's 'Musick's Monument,' A.D. 1676, p. 235.

In these 18th-century harpsichords, the Flemish practice of ornamenting with painting—often the cause of an instrument being broken up when no longer efficient—was done away with; also the laudable old custom of mottoes to remind the player of the analogous brevity of life and sound, of the divine nature of the gift of music, or of dead wood reviving as living tone. But it was when the instrument went out altogether that this enrichment of picture galleries by the demolition of harpsichords was most effected. The number of Ruckers however known to exist has been extended by research to upwards of thirty [App. p.668 "The number of existing Ruckers harpsichords and spinets catalogued by the present writer is (1888) 68"]. Still there was great care in the artistic choice of wood and in the cabinet-work of Tschudi's beautiful instruments. One in the possession of Her Majesty the Queen, and long preserved in Kew Palace, is quite a masterpiece in these respects. It bears Tschudi's name, spelt, as was usual, Shudi; the date 1740 and maker's number 94 are inside. The compass is as in the South Kensington Ruckers, G to F, without the lowest G♯. Two, of 1758 (probably) and 1766, are in the New Palace at Potsdam, and were Frederick the Great's. [App. p.668 "Both the Shudi harpsichords at Potsdam are dated 1766. See Shudi, vol. iii. p. 489b, l. 9–27."] Messrs. Broadwood have one dated 1771, with five and a half octaves, C to F, Venetian Swell and five stops, comprising the two unisons and octave of the Ruckers, with a slide of jacks striking the strings much nearer to the bridge (also a Ruckers contrivance), and producing a more twanging quality of tone, the so-called 'lute'-stop and a 'buff'-stop of small pieces of leather, brought into contact with the strings, damping the tone and thus giving a kind of pizzicato effect. This fine instrument was used by Moscheles in his Historical Concerts in 1837, and by Mr. Pauer in similar performances in 1862, 63, and 67. There is also one in the Musik Verein at Vienna of similar construction, made by 'Burkat Shudi et Johannes Broadwood,' and dated 1775, which belonged to Joseph Haydn. This was the young Shudi; it is very doubtful if another harpsichord exists with Broadwood's name upon it. [App. p.668 "for the number of Shudi and Broadwood harpsichords existing, see Shudi, vol. iii. p. 489b, l. 46–7; and p. 490, list of Shudi and Shudi & Broadwood harpsichords. The latest instrument by these makers now (1888) known to exist is numbered 1137 and dated 1790."]

The variety of stops and combinations introduced by different makers here and abroad at last became legion, and were as worthless as they were numerous. Pascal Taskin, a native of Theux in Liège and a famous Parisian harpsichord maker, is credited with the reintroduction of leather as an alternative to quills; his Clavecin 'en peau de buffle' made in 1768 was pronounced superior to the pianoforte (De la Borde, 'Essai sur la musique', 1773). Taskin's were smaller scale harpsichords than those in vogue in England, and had ebony naturals and ivory sharps, and a Japanese fashion of external ornamentation. There is one at South Kensington, dated 1786. In the Liceo Communale di Musica at Bologna there is a harpsichord with four rows of keys, called an 'Archicembalo.' This instrument, according to Mr. Engel, was made by a Venetian, Vito Trasuntino, after the invention of Nicolo Vicentino, who described it in his work 'L'Antica Musica ridotto alia moderna prattica' (Rome 1555). The compass comprises only four octaves, but in each octave are thirty-one keys. A 'Tetracordo' was made to facilitate the tuning of these minute intervals. Thus early were attempts made to arrive at purity of intonation by multiplying the number of keys within the bounds of the octave. Another of the curiosities of harpsichord making was the 'Transponiclavicymbel' described by Praetorius (1614–18). By shifting the keyboard the player could transpose two tones higher or lower, passing at pleasure through the intermediate half tones. Arnold Schlick, however, had achieved a similar transposition with the organ as early as 1513 (Monatshefte für Musik-Geschichte, Berlin, 1869). A harpsichord pedalier—Clavicymbelpedal—according to Dr. Oscar Paul, an independent instrument with two octaves of pedals, was used by J. S. Bach, notably in his Trios and the famous 'Passacaille'; and in his transcriptions of Vivaldi's Concertos. Lastly a 'Lautenwerke' must be noticed, a gut-string harpsichord, an instrument not worth remembering had not Bach himself directed the making of one by Zacharias Hildebrand of Leipsic. It was shorter than the usual harpsichord, had two unisons of gut strings, and an octave register of brass wire, and was praised as capable, if heard concealed, of deceiving a lute-player by profession (Paul, Gesch. des Claviers, Leipsic 1868). [See Clavichord, Ruckers,Spinet, Virginal.]

[ A. J. H. ]

  1. The King's Birthday Ode was accompanied by the harpsichord until June 4th, 1795, when a grand piano was substituted, a harpsichord having been used at the rehearsal.
  2. The oldest trace in the Netherlands of the harpsichord or clavecin is that a house in Antwerp, in the parish of Notre Dame, bore in 1582 the name of 'de Clavizimbele.'