Tuesday, June 17, 2014

History of the Keyboard: The Harpsichord

The next couple weeks we are looking at a brief history of the keyboard in conjunction with the annual World Piano Competition taking place here in Cincinnati next week. For more information on this competition, check out their websiteLast week we looked at an early keyboard instrument, the clavichord. Today, let’s talk about the harpsichord, a plucked keyboard instrument that originated during the 16th century.

Derived from the psaltery, the harpsichord has plucked strings rather than struck strings like a clavichord or dulcimer. What does this mean? When the performer presses a key on the harpsichord, a quill plucks the appropriate string producing a sound. At first, the instrument was rather small like a tabletop clavichord but eventually grew in size and was given legs. The harpsichord has the same shape as a grand piano and contains several rows of strings with 2–3 keyboards. The purpose of these separate keyboards was to help in producing different timbres and dynamics that could not happen by pressing just one key. Despite this ability to produce a sense of dynamics, the harpsichord was unable to play crescendos or diminuendos, thus leaving the need for the future development of the piano.

After its development, the harpsichord gained popularity because it had a louder tone production than the clavichord and could be used for both solo or ensemble performance. Known for its ornamental style, performers were sure to play with clean and precise attacks on the keys. This style was much easier on this early keyboard instrument than on modern instruments.

Have you ever heard anyone mention a virginal, clavecin, or clavicembalo? Do not let these names confuse you. They are all a type of harpsichord named differently depending on the country. Virginals existed in England, clavecin in France, and clavicembalo in Italy.

Here is a picture of a harpsichord. Notice like the clavichord, it is beautifully decorated. This particular example has two keyboards. Have you ever seen a harpsichord similar to this one?

Courtesy of wikipedia.org 

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