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Buying a harpsichordPart 1
When purchasing a harpsichord today one
is faced with a very large set of options, most of which are based on designs of
historical instruments. This article decribes the features of instruments from, or based
and 18th centuries.
Instruments of the 16th and 17th centuries fall
into either the Italian or Flemish schools. Early 18th century builders developed
instruments with a smoother sound and action.
The harpsichord from 1500-1680
The oldest surviving harpsichord, dated 1521, has features that can be found on Italian
instruments built for a period of roughly 300 years. The case was very thin and made of
cypress, the soundboard also of cypress and the bottom boards made of deal. This was
common for 16th century harpsichords but 17th century harpsichords had soundboards made of pine. The
soundboards were simply barred on the underside and had bridges that were both smaller and
made of softer wood than of the Flemish / Ruckers instruments. Italian instruments usually
had separate outer cases. A less common variation of the Italian design appeared in the 17th century that had
thicker case sides made of deal.
Italian harpsichords have one keyboard
and 2x8 registration (two sets of eight foot pitched strings). Italian models have no hand
stops. To turn off one of the sets of strings the jack rail must be removed and the
register adjusted out of the way. The scaling (the speaking length of the strings) of
Italian instruments is shorter than Flemish harpsichords. All 16th and 17th century
harpsichords had short naturals and a balance point near the fronts of the keys. Short key
heads and crisp action encourage precision fingering. Sixteenth century keyboards usually
had a short octave in the bass. In the latter part of the 17th century the
keyboards had a broken octave.
The best known maker of Flemish harpsichords is Ruckers, prevalent from 1580 1680.
The cases were heavier than the Italian style, probably to support their longer scaling in
the treble. The bridges are bigger, made of harder wood (pear or beech) and taper to
larger thickness in the bass. The soundboard is of pine of more elaborately braced
underneath. Registers stick out the side of the case to facilitate register changes.
Though Ruckers produced transposing double manual harpsichords a 4th apart in pitch,
discussion continues on whether or not Ruckers produced double manuals with both at the
Seventeenth century English harpsichords have Italian features (thin case of hardwood and
short scalings). The lute stop makes its appearance where one set of 8 foot strings plucks
near the nut (the bridge on the wrestplank). In England the lute stop was preferred to the
4 foot register and by mid century it was common to have 2x8 plus a lute stop. Double
manuals didnt appear until after 1680.
Again, Italian like in construction, French instruments have light cases and short
scalings. Though there was little interest in double manual harpsichords in other
countries, Some French double instruments appear to have had 2x8 on the lower and 1x4 on
the upper (no coupler, but with dogleg jacks). Registers were controlled with handstops
that protrude through the nameplate.
The few samples that have survived are also of Italian style construction.
Virginals and spinets
The English used the word virginal to
mean generically any keyboard instrument, but also a very specific instrument. A virginal
is a plucking instrument in a square case. The strings run parallel to the keyboard and
the strings are plucked by jack in the center of the strings. Unlike harpsichords, both
the nut and the bridge are located on the soundboard.
Italians have this type of virginal but
also a 5 sided version (a.k.a. pentagonal spinet or polygonal spinet).
Flemish virginals come in two
rectangular versions. A spinet, with keyboard to the left and a Muselar with keybaord to
the right. Muselars pluck the strings at their mid point ruling out fast bass passages.
English virginals usually consist of
Italian characteristics. But between 1640 and 1680 we see instruments that combine both
Italian and Flemish features. They also look like an aok chest with a pastoral scene
pained on the inside of the lid.
The Italian bentside spinet remained
popular in France, Germany and England throughout the 18th century. This instrument has one set
of strings laid about 30 degrees relative to the keyboard. For over 100 years this design
remained unchanged. In the 18th century cases were made heavier and larger.
The harpsichord 1680-1800
Two schools appeared. One based in Hamburg (by Hass) and one in Saxony. Both exhibit
Flemish and late French characteristics. Of the two schools, Saxon harpsichords are
lighter and simpler in construction. Many have two manuals and a registration of 2x8 plus
1x4. Though Hass instruments sometimes had a 16 foot register, this feature is considered
extraneous by many. Handstops are situated on the wrestplank. Up to 1750, compass rarely
exceeded GG to c3 or d3.
Keyboards have long keyheads and very
long sharps (Bach was not in favor of these types of keyboards).
Italian instruments continued with little change except that their range was extended to
five octaves in the second half of the 18th century.
Both single and double manual instruments were built. The doubles had a registration of
2x8, 1x4 plus lute stop. Upper manual eight foot used dog leg jacks and the lute stop
plucked the same strings as the eight foot on the lower manual thus preventing
simultaneous use. A few Flemish instruments appeared later with cases of maple or oak
(Ruckers used poplar).
Instruments constructed up through the late 17th century in England had established a traditional style
harpsichord: double manual instrument with 2x8, 1x4 and a lute stop with dogleg jacks on
the upper manual. They also exhibit thin walnut cases, short scalings, and a compass of
FF-d or GG-g. Since the lute stop plucks the upper
manual set of strings a player can create a dialog between the lute stop on the upper
manual and the eight foot on the lower.
From the 1730s and on,
harpsichords from Kirckman and Shudi are of heavier construction and are often elaborately
veneered. Guide pins were moved to the fronts of the keys, producing a less sensitive
touch than instruments from contemporary French builders. In the late 1700s the
Venetian swell appeared on a few instruments (operated by foot pedal).
In this period the French aimed to develop the highly expressive instruments. Moving away
from their own traditional 17th century style of construction, they styled new instruments
by taking Flemish designs and making them into double manual instruments with 2x8, 1x4
with a keyboard coupler, a buff stop and a compass of 5 octaves. All this has the effect
of widening the case. A light, responsive and quiet touch is characteristic of these
French instruments. The instruments of Blanchet are very expressive and highlight the
tenor register (a.k.a. viola da gamba register). Some instruments have a peau de buffle
register on the lower manual. Blanchet also introduced knee levers that enabled rapid
register changes. It should be noted that these types of instruments were built almost 40
years after Couperin and Rameau and written their last works harpsichord works. These
features were introduced near the end of the life of the harpsichord. By the 1780s
Blanchet began building pianos.
Many harpsichordists use copies of 18th century
instruments as all purpose harpsichords. Many of these late 18th century
instruments were built to serve the new musical ideas coming into vogue. It would be wise
to consider instead, instruments designed and built to support the character of the
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