Harpsichords, Clavichords
and Virginals

Jack Peters Harpsichords

Home

Choosing a
Harpsichord

Selected
Instruments

Other
Services

Books and
Web Sites




Hints for
Choosing a
Harpsichord
Larry Palmer
Buying a
Harpsichord
Part 1
Trevor Pinnock
Buying a
Harpsichord
Part 2
Trevor Pinnock

ABSTRACT
Email us if you'd like to know how to obtain the full article.

Buying a harpsichord–Part 1
Trevor Pinnock

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 on 16th, 17th, 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

Italy
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.

Flanders
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 same pitch.

England
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 didn’t appear until after 1680.

France
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.

Germany
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

Germany
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).

Italy
Italian instruments continued with little change except that their range was extended to five octaves in the second half of the 18th century.

Flanders
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).

England
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 1730’s 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 1700’s the Venetian swell appeared on a few instruments (operated by foot pedal).

France
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 1780’s 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 original music.

Back to Top


Jack Peters Harpsichords
14330 Phinney Ave N.
Seattle, WA 98133

jpearlymus[AT]comcast[DOT]net
(206) 364-8254