Cincinnati’s annual World Piano Competition is coming up June 23–28. In honor of this major musical event in our city, I want to look at a brief history of the keyboard over the next three weeks. For more information on the World Piano Competition, check out their website here.
The clavichord is one of the earlier keyboard instruments originating around the year 1484. Descending from the dulcimer, the clavichord similarly is a ‘struck’ instrument, the sound resulting from the striking of a string. It has a rectangular shape with the white keys made of boxwood along the front. The first clavichords were small instruments with no legs. They were typically placed on a table or the performer’s lap when played.
The original clavichord contained more keys than strings and thus, each string produced multiple notes. This type of clavichord is called a ‘fretted’ clavichord. The disadvantage of this type of instrument was that two notes produced by the same string could not be played simultaneously. A solution to this dilemma came in 1725 when the ‘unfretted’ clavichord came into existence, allowing one string per note. This new type of clavichord was larger and more expensive so many people chose to keep their older versions.
Unlike the piano, the length of a note and vibrato on a clavichord can be controlled by varying the pressure on the key after it’s pressed. This type of vibrato is known as Bebung. The clavichord was primarily used in domestic settings as a solo instrument as, due to its weak sound, it did not combine well in ensemble settings or larger halls.
Below you can see an example of a clavichord. Notice the beautifully ornamented lid. Often times, the keys were also veneered with ivory. This particular instrument is an example of one played on tabletop.