A Brief History of the Harpsichord

The harpsichord is a musical instrument whose strings are plucked from a keyboard and which sits on a table or stand while being played. They have been made in varying shapes, sizes and sounds over the years. They were called virginals in Elizabethan England, a term today reserved in English for harpsichords whose strings are parallel to the keyboard.
The ancestor of the harpsichord was the psaltery. When played with a plectrum held in one hand, and the strings damped by the other hand, it could handle rapid organal parts. In this example, a drawing in the Velislav Bible of 1340, it is being plucked with both hands, playing with a harp and bells. From the attention the player is paying to the harpist, she is obviously playing a subordinate part.

The psaltery is occasionally shown being played flat on a lap, but it is then easily confused with the dulcimer, which was struck with hammers like a xylophone.

By the late 1300s, a keyboard was being added to the psaltery, at right angles to the soundboard in a manner similar to portative organs of the time. It remained a small hand-held instrument and had the Latin name clavicytherium. This is probably the instrument referred to as an exaquir in 1387, "an instrument like an organ which sounds by means of strings". This wood carving is in Kefermarkt, Austria.
What we know today as a harpsichord seems to have evolved in the early 1400s in Flanders. The earliest ones had the thick cases typical of later Flemish instruments, but were small by later standards and had no jack rail. Their complex plucking mechanisms survive in a set of drawings c1440 by Henri Arnaut in Burgundy. Some of these plucked the strings with a quill like the psaltery, some with metal plectra, and at least one struck the strings with a metal staple in the manner of the dulcimer. The earliest surviving representation is an altar carving from Germany ca.1425. The second is from England: a beautiful stained glass window attributed to John Prudd c1440 in the Beauchamp chapel of St.Mary's Church, Warwick England that clearly shows its Flemish influence in the case decoration.

By 1500, however, Italian makers have taken over. All harpsichords appear to be plucked by simple jacks sliding in a guide between a keyboard and a jack rail. The Italian case is light and the stress of the strings supported by internal knees. The keyboard range has doubled from the earlier northern instruments. And, the harpsichord has taken the musical world by storm.

Some 40 instruments survive essentially intact from the 1500's. Almost all are Italian. This may be because in later centuries, northern instrument makers moved towards heavier, longer strings that would have pulled their early instruments apart. Italian instruments kept light short strings throughout the harpsichord era, and could continue to adapt their old instruments to later tastes. But, the earliest references to harpsichords are all from north of the Alps.

Most early Italian harpsichords were single strung, some had an octave string set; only a few had doubled fundamental strings. Some, such as this one, the earliest surviving unmodified harpsichord, by Domenicus Pisaurensis (Domenic of Pesaro) of 1533, have both nut and bridge on a soundboard. This is the instrument of the 'father of music', Wm. Byrd, and the other English virginalists.

Harpsichords were very variable in pitch at this time. There seems, however, to have been a tendency to cluster around two scales. These probably sounded about a fourth apart, with the lower one matching the pitch of the lute.
Early in the 1500s, a small form of the harpsichord appears in Italy, the spinetta, with single strings parallel to the keyboard. It has a pentagonal outline, and both ends of the strings rest on a soundboard. (The instrument attributed to Queen Elizabeth I is an Italian pentagonal spinetta.) They were made in Flanders as well, as shown in a delicate painting by Caterina de Hemessen in 1548.
About 1560, the Flemish began making the spinetta bigger, with a rectangular outline. The most popular instrument of this type was called a muselaar, and sounded like a lute. Others sounded like the Italian instruments, but had a wider range. This painting of student and teacher is by Jan VerMeer, c1660.

Also at this time, the Flemish made the first known efforts to vary the sound of the basic harpsichord. The muselaars had a set of metal pins which could be slid up to the strings near one end. Two-manual harpsichords appear by 1580, with the spinetten sound on the upper manual and a lute sound on the lower (but not as much so as the muselaar). The Flemish also made elaborate virginal pairs an octave apart - these could be played as two entirely separate instruments, as a two manual instrument, or be coupled together to sound as one.

By 1640, two fundamental strings played together predominated in Italian practise and most of the old ones were converted to this style. (The oldest surviving harpsichord, by Hieronymus Bononiensis in 1521, was originally single strung.) Italian practise then remained largely unchanged as long as the harpsichord was used. Further development of harpsichords was based on the Flemish models of the late 1500s.

During this century, the harpsichord range was increased. Most early instruments cover less than 4 octaves, this was gradually expanded to 5 octaves. Often this was done by retuning the bass octave to omit sharp notes, thus reaching deeper notes with no change to the instrument. In this 1677 instrument by Fabry of Bologna, the range has been extended by splitting the lowest two sharp keys and squeezing two new sets of strings into an existing design.
A compact form of single-strung harpsichord, the wing-shaped spinet began to replace the Flemish virginals as the preferred domestic instrument late in the 1600s. This one, by Thomas Hitchcock, is similar to the one at Fenton House that told me that the harpsichord was my instrument.
The number of strings increased, large instruments often having three choirs per note. And, the choirs were now designed to be easily selected by the player in various combinations for different sound effects.

Two manual instruments became more common (but were always in the small minority). Usually the choirs used by an upper manual were voiced more quietly than those used by the lower, allowing choice of a forte-piano contrast as well as a tonal contrast.

Despite these changes, however, the essential mechanical layout and sound of the Flemish instruments of the mid-1500s were retained in northern instruments during the 1700s. This was the instrument for which the Couperins, J.S.Bach, Handel, Haydn, and the other great northern composers wrote. This example is an 18th century French rebuild of a 1623 Ruckers. (Photo courtesy Michael Meacock)

Only in Spain and Portugal was there any significant development of the Italian harpsichord, the range was increased to the 5 octaves used by Domenico Scarlatti. This 1785 example is by Joachim José Antunés.

Essentially, use of the harpsichord ceased by 1800. The precision and clarity of the baroque had been replaced by mush and bombast.

Several German firms experimented with plucked pianos late in the 1800's. By 1900, a young Polish pianist, Wanda Landowska, had figured out how to make good music with them and, in 1912, the French firm of Pleyel brought out a model designed for her, shown at right. Ralph Kirkpatrick and others used similar instruments to join her in developing a wholly new sound that blended piano and organ techniques of the time. A French violinist, Arnold Dolmetsch, made a number of instruments at several workshops based on English harpsichords of the late 1700s, but without their sonority - they attracted few admirers. Some of the surviving large harpsichords were modified by replacing a set of strings by strings an octave below normal pitch - at least one such modified instrument was attributed to J.S.Bach.

The revival of the instruments with the sound that ravished three centuries of the world's most discerning musicians began with Frank Hubbard's studies with Hugh Gough in 1948, his research that culminated in his "Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making" of 1965, and all the apprentices he trained. (My instrument was made by Wm.Ross, an early Hubbard apprentice.) By the late 1900s, many craftsmen made instruments as musical as the old, such as this 1976 Ruckers/Taskin harpsichord by Hubbard. And, many performers played them as well as the old.

If you want to buy a harpsichord, Hubbard Harpsichords makes as fine instruments as have ever been made. The Harpsichord Clearing House is the best source of used instruments I know of. If you want to learn about old instruments, read the Galpin Society Journal and the Quarterly of the Fellowship of Makers and Researchers of Historical Instruments.

John Sankey
other notes on harpsichord playing