Instruments | Harpsichord | Renaissance | Classical
Most famous of all the early keyboard instruments, the harpsichord was first mentioned in 1397, and the earliest representation to have survived dates from 1425. The harpsichord rose to prominence in the sixteenth century and flourished for a while before its harmonic limitations caused its gradual displacement by the piano in the eighteenth century.
The harpsichord consisted of a wooden frame on which a series of metal strings were mounted, starting with the lowest on the left. The frame was essentially a right-angled triangle whose longest side swept inwards. Across the shortest side lay the keyboard. On depressing any of the keys, the player set in motion a lever device which made a jack jump up and fall immediately back into place. The quill plectrum protruding from the jack thus rose and plucked the strings a single time. Each note sounded much the same every time it was played; there was little of the dynamic variance (except by stopping) so important on a modern piano.
Italian harpsichords were light constructions with two complete sets of strings operated by a single keyboard, while Flemish and English makers – among them the famous Ruckers family of Anwerp and the Kirckmans of London – made instruments that had two keyboards, one placed above and behind the other, like two steps of a staircase. Decoration of the case also set instruments from different countries apart: while the English and Germans stuck to the techniques of cabinet-making using some modest marquetry, the Flemish, French and Italians, particularly, went in for extravagant use of gold leaf and painted scenes – sometimes under the lid, which was lifted for performance in the manner of a modern concert grand piano, sometimes over the entire body of the instrument.
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