Instruments | Harpsichord | Keyboards

In one form or another, the harpsichord ruled the domestic keyboard roost throughout Europe – and later in America – from the late-sixteenth to the early-nineteenth centuries.

Apart from the organ, it was the grandest and most versatile of all keyboard instruments until the advent of the mature fortepiano in the mid- to late-eighteenth century.

Rise and Fall of the Harpsichord

Its prevalence may be gauged by the fact that the first 14 of Beethoven’s epoch-making piano sonatas, including the famous Moonlight Sonata (1801), were originally published as being ‘For Harpsichord or Pianoforte’. In reality, they were no such thing, but there were clearly enough harpsichords in private ownership to justify the marketing ploy on practical if not artistic grounds.

Nor was its use confined to the home. It provided a vital degree of rhythmic incisiveness and harmonic foundation in virtually every instrumental combination from the trio sonatas of the early Baroque to the earlier symphonies of Haydn two centuries later. Well before the 1820s, though, the instrument had all but disappeared, overtaken by the rapidly developing and increasingly powerful piano.


The definitive element in the harpsichord’s mechanism is the ‘jack’ – a slender, upright piece of wood, mounted at the far end of a key and topped with a small artificial plectrum (comparable to the end of a quill pen and made either of hardened leather or from the wing-feathers of birds such as ravens, crows or condors). When the key is depressed, the jack at the other end is propelled upwards, plucking the string as it passes. On the downward journey, a wooden ‘tongue’, pivoted on the jack and originally sprung with a boar’s bristle, allows the jack to pass the string without plucking it again.

Slotted into the jack, next to the tongue but just above the plectrum, is a ‘damper’ – usually a wedge of felt or other soft cloth – which prevents the string from vibrating when the key is at rest, just as it enables the vibration when the key is depressed. The earliest and simplest harpsichords had one jack and one string for each note or key, and could thus be made very small and easily portable. Later harpsichords may have as many as five strings to each note and as many as three keyboards (as with the organ, these are generally known as ‘manuals’). In instruments such as these, of course, the mechanical challenges are vastly more complex. The essential principle, however, remains the same.

The strings themselves, prior to the harpsichord revival in the late-nineteenth century, were made variously of iron, copper, brass and even steel – often in combination, with a view to achieving a wide range of tonal variety. In modern harpsichords, they generally consist of steel.

Playing Technique

Among the factors affecting harpsichord timbre is the placement of the jack relative to the length of the string. A string plucked near the bridge will have a distinctly different character and ‘feel’...

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


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