A harpsichord is the general term for a family of European keyboard instruments which generate sound by plucking (rather than striking, as in a piano) a string. It is thought to have originated when a keyboard was affixed to the end of a psaltery, providing a mechanical means to pluck the strings.
How harpsichords work
The action is fairly similar between all harpsichords:
The keylever is a simple pivot which rocks on a pin passing through a hole drilled through it.
The jack is a thin rectangular piece of wood which sits upright on the end of the keylever, held in place by the guides - upper and lower - which are two long pieces of wood with holes through with the jacks can pass.
In the jack, a plectrum juts out almost horizontally, (normally the plectrum is angled upwards a tiny amount) and passes just under the string. Historically, plectra were normally made of crow quill, or leather, though most modern harpsichords use a plastic (delrin or celcon) instead.
When the front of the key is pressed, the back is lifted up, the jack is raised, and the plectrum plucks the string.
Upon lowering the key, the jack falls back down under its own weight, and the plectrum pivots backwards to allow it past the string. This is made possible by having the plectrum held in a tongue which is attached witha hinge and a spring to the body of the jack.
At the top of the jack, a damper of felt sticks out and keeps the string from vibrating when the key is not depressed.
Kinds of harpsichords
While the terms used to denote various members of the family are relatively standardized today, in the harpsichord's heyday, this was not the case.
In modern usage, a harpsichord can mean all the members of the family, or more specifically, the grand-piano-shaped member, with a vaguely triangular case accommodating long bass strings at the left and short treble strings at the right; characteristically, the profile is more elongated than that of a modern piano, with a sharper curve to the bentside. A harpsichord can have from one to three, and occasionally even more, strings per note. Often one is at four-foot pitch, an octave higher than the normal eight-foot pitch. Single manuals, or keyboards are common, especially in Italian harpichords, though many other countries tended to produce double-manuals.
The virginal is a smaller and simpler rectangular form of the harpsichord, with only one string per note running parallel to the keyboard on the long side of the case. Often the word was rendered with a suffix: virginals. The origin of the word is obscure but it is usually linked to the fact that the instrument was frequently played by young women. Note that the word "virginal" in Elizabethan times was often used to designate any kind of harpsichord; thus the masterworks of William Byrd and his contempories were often played on full-size Italian style harpsichords, and not just on the virginals as we call it today.
Finally, a harpsichord with the strings set at an angle to the keyboard (usually of about 30 degrees) is called a spinet. In such an instrument, the strings are too close to fit the jacks between them in the normal way; instead, the strings are arranged in pairs, the jacks are placed in the large gaps between pairs, and they face in opposite directions, plucking the strings adjacent to the gap.
Unsurprisingly, for an instrument that was produced in large numbers for over three centuries, there is a great deal of variation between harpsichords. In addition to the varied forms that the instrument can take, and the different dispositions, or registrations, that can be fitted to a harpsichord, as mentioned above, the range can vary greatly. Generally, earlier harpsichords have smaller ranges, and later ones larger, though there are frequent exceptions. In general, the largest harpsichords have a range of just over five octaves, and the smallest have under four. Usually, the shortest keyboards were given extended range using the method of the "short octave".
History of the harpsichord
The origin of the harpsichord is lost in the Middle Ages. The earliest written references to it date from the 1300's, and it is possible that harpsichord was indeed invented in that century. This was a time in which advances in clockwork and other forms of machinery were being made, and thus a likely time for the invention of those mechanical aspects that distinguish a harpsichord from a psaltery.
The earliest harpsichords still preserved come from Italy, the oldest specimen being dated 1521. However, the early Italian instruments can shed no light on the origin of the harpsichord, as they represent an already well-refined form of the instrument. The Italian harpsichord makers made single-manual instruments with a very light construction and relatively little string tension. This design persisted with little alteration among Italian makers for centuries. The Italian instruments are considered pleasing but unspectacular in their tone, and serve well for accompanying singers or other instruments.
A revolution in harpsichord construction took place in Flanders some time around 1580 with the work of Hans Ruckers and his descendants. The Ruckers harpsichord used longer strings, greater string tension, and a heavier case, as well as a very slender and responsive spruce soundboard. This combination produced a more powerful and noble tone than the Italian harpsichord, and served as the basis for subsequent harpsichord building in most other nations. The Flemish makers also innovated the two-manual harpsichord, which was initially used merely to permit easy transposition (at the interval of a fourth), rather then to increase the expressive range of the instrument.
The Flemish instrument received further development in 18th-century France, notably with the work of the Blanchet family and their successor Pascal Taskin. These French instruments imitated the construction of the Flemish ones, but they were extended in their range, from about four to about five octaves. In addition, two-manual French instruments used their manuals to vary the combination of stops being used (i.e., strings being plucked), rather than for transposition. The 18th century French harpsichord is often considered one of the pinnacles of harpsichord design, and it is widely adopted as a model for the construction of modern instruments.
A striking aspect of the 18th century French tradition was its near-fetishlike obsession with the Ruckers harpsichords. In a process called "grande ravalement", many of the surviving Ruckers instruments were torn apart and reassembled, with new soundboard material and case construction adding an octave to their range. It is considered likely that many of the harpsichords claimed at the time to be Ruckers restorations are fraudulent. From a contemporary point of view, these may be considered benevolent frauds, since they are superb instruments in their own right.
In England, two immigrant makers, Jacob Kirckman (from Germany) and Burkat Shudi (from Switzerland) achieved eminence with harpsichords noted for their powerful tone and exquisite veneered cases. The sound of Kirckman and Shudi harpsichords has impressed many listeners, but the feeling that it overpowers the music has led to very few modern instruments being modeled on them. The Shudi firm was passed on to Shudi's son-in-law John Broadwood, who adapted it to the manufacture of the piano and became a leading creative force in the development of that instrument.
The German harpsichord makers roughly followed the French model, but with a special interest in achieving a variety of sonorities, perhaps because some of the most eminent German builders were also builders of organs. Some German harpsichords included a choir of two-foot strings (that is, strings pitched two octaves above the primary set). A few even included a 16-foot stop, pitched an octave below the main 8-foot choirs. One still-preserved German harpsichord even has three manuals to control all the many combinations of strings that were available. The 2-foot and 16-foot stops of the German harpsichord are not particularly in favor among harpsichordists today, who tend to prefer the French type of instrument.
At the peak of its development, the harpsichord lost favor to the piano. The piano quickly evolved away from its harpsichord-like origins, and as a result the knowledge of how to build good harpsichords died out for over a century.
In the early twentieth century, an awakening interest in authentic performance led to the revival of the harpsichord. This included crude "modernizations" of antique instruments, as well as the construction of harpsichords resembling modern concert grand pianos. These instruments sounded surprisingly weak for their size, because their frames and soundboards were too heavy to properly match the thin and lightly-tensioned strings of the harpsichord. Builders typically included a 16-foot stop in these instruments to bolster the sound, even though in historical times the 16-foot had played only a minor role.
Ultimately, it was realized that to make fine modern harpsichords it would be necessary to learn the methods followed by the old builders. Two important pioneers in the process of rediscovery were the builder-scholars Frank Hubbard and William Dowd, who took apart and inspected many old instruments and consulted the written material on harpsichords from the historical period. Today, harpsichords that are founded on the rediscovered principles of the old makers are built in workshops around the world. The workshops often also construct kits, which are assembled into final form by amateur enthusiasts.
The first music written specifically for solo harpsichord came to be published around the middle of the sixteenth century. Well into the eighteenth century, the harpsichord was considered to have advantages and disadvantages with respect to the piano. Besides solo works, the harpsichord is also well-suited to accompaniment in the basso continuo style (a function it maintained in opera even into the nineteenth century).
Through the 19th century, the harpsichord was ignored by composers, the piano having supplanted it. In the 20th century, however, with increasing interest in early music and composers on the lookout for new sounds, pieces began to be written for it once more. Concertos for the instrument were written by Francis Poulenc (the Concert champore), Manuel de Falla and, later, Henryk Garecki. Bohuslav Martinu wrote both a concerto and a sonata for it, and Elliott Carter's Double Concerto is for harpsichord, piano and two chamber orchestras. Gyargy Ligeti has written a small number of solo works for the instrument (including "Continuum").
Musicians who play the harpsichord are known as harpsichordists.