Instruments | Clavichord | Keyboards

One of the oldest keyboard instruments, the clavichord has its origins in the late-fourteenth century, and was used throughout Western Europe during the Renaissance. It maintained its popularity in German lands into the first quarter of the nineteenth century, when, like its cousin the harpsichord, it was decisively superseded by the piano.

Pitch and Timbre

The clavichord is the most touch-responsive keyboard instrument yet devised. The piano’s range of dynamics and tone colours is vastly greater than that of the clavichord, but once the key has been depressed and the hammer has hit the string, there is little or nothing the finger can do to affect the sound.

On the clavichord, the strings are set in vibration not by a hammer but with a tangent (a small, upright wedge, originally made of brass), which remains in contact with the string or strings it has set in motion for the duration of the sound. Its tone is small, but through deft manipulation of finger pressure it can be made to swell or diminish, to achieve a true vibrato, even to change its pitch. The clavichord is the only instrument in which the afterlife of a tone, once struck, can be substantially affected by finger pressure alone (the slightest fluctuation in touch will clearly register a difference in loudness or pitch). It is thus the only keyboard instrument that allows vibrato and can thus emulate the contours of the human voice, with all its subtlety of inflection.

Fretted and Unfretted Models

The usual shape of the clavichord is a rectangular box, with the keyboard set into or projecting from one of the longer sides, the strings (generally in pairs – two per note) lying at 90 degrees to the keyboard. It ranges in length from four feet (common) to seven (a late-eighteenth-century development, spurred by the development of the piano).

Since the pitch is determined not by the length of the strings, as in the piano, but by the distance between the tangent and the bridge, it was frequent practice to assign two, or even three, notes to any given pair of strings. Such models are known as ‘fretted’ clavichords. By going for notes unlikely ever to be sounded simultaneously – C and C#, for example – makers could economize on the size and hardware of the instrument, crucial to the majority of buyers, whose rooms would not easily accommodate a harpsichord. In the mid- to late-eighteenth century, clavichords were often built unfretted, with a separate pair of strings for each key. Some instruments were built with two manuals – effectively one clavichord on top of another and a pedal keyboard, for the practice use of organists.

An Intimate Instrument

With all its subtleties, it is small wonder that the clavichord was so beloved of Bach (who prized ‘singingness’ above all other musical virtues), and of Mozart and Beethoven after him – despite their ownership and mastery of the latest...

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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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