Wednesday, January 8, 8397

First Reference to a Harpsichord (1397)

First Reference to a Harpsichord (1397)

Giovanni Salvatore (1610-1688) - Toccata (Harpsichord)

A harpsichord is a musical instrument played by means of a keyboard. It produces sound by plucking a string when each key is pressed.

As well as the large instrument currently called a harpsichord, the harpsichord family also includes the smaller virginals, the muselar or muselaar virginals and the spinet (but not the clavichord which is a hammered instrument).

The harpsichord was widely used in Renaissance and Baroque music. It became less popular following the invention of the piano, but is still used in contemporary music due to its distinctive sound.

Although harpsichords vary in size and shape, they all have the same basic functional arrangement. The player presses a key, causing the far end of the key to rise. This lifts a jack, a long strip of wood, to which is attached a small plectrum (a bit of quill or plastic), which on being lifted plucks the string. When the key is released by the player, the far end returns to its rest position and the jack is lowered. The plectrum, being mounted on a tongue that can swivel backwards away from the string, passes the string without plucking it again. As the key settles into its rest position, the string vibrations are halted by the damper, a bit of felt attached to the top of the jack.

Simply plucking the strings would produce a very feeble sound. The full sonority of the harpsichord arises because the strings pass over a bridge (fig. 1, 9), which provides a sharp edge supporting one end of their vibrating length. The bridge is firmly attached to a soundboard (fig. 1, 14), a thin panel of wood usually made of spruce or (in Italian harpsichords) cedar. The soundboard and case-construction efficiently transduces the vibrations of the strings to the air, making them fully audible. Also, the vibrations of one string will invite its adjacent twin string to resonate in sympathy as long as the key is pressed. Some harpsichords have a 'damper off' position so that one choir of strings is undamped and may resonate freely in response to the tones played on the other choir(s).

It is not unusual for a harpsichord to have exactly one string per note. However, there are several reasons why it is considered desirable to have more.

When there are two choirs of strings at the same length, it is possible to give them different tonal qualities and thus increase the variety of sound that the harpsichord can produce. This is done by having one plucked close to the nut (the bridge-like device that terminates the sounding length of the strings), the other farther away. Plucking close to the nut emphasizes the higher harmonics, producing a "nasal" sound quality.

When two strings are carefully tuned to be the same pitch, or an octave apart, and are plucked simultaneously (by a single keystroke), the ear will hear a single note, louder and enriched by virtue of being sounded by two differently arranged strings. The quality distinction is particularly noticeable when the one string is an octave higher or lower than the other.

Thus, in describing a harpsichord, it is customary to specify its choirs of strings, often called its disposition. Strings at eight foot pitch sound at the normal expected pitch, strings at four foot pitch sound an octave higher, and similarly for the rare 16-foot pitch (one octave lower) and two-foot pitch (two octaves higher).

When there are multiple choirs of strings, it is desirable for the player to be able to control which ones are played at any given time. This is generally done by having multiple sets of jacks (one per string), "turning off" a choir of strings by moving the upper register (through which the jacks slide) sideways a bit, so that their plectra no longer touch the strings.

In simpler instruments, this function was performed directly by hand, but as the harpsichord evolved various inventions arose making it easier to change the registration, for example with levers next to the keyboard, knee levers, or pedals.

The case holds in position all of the important structural members: pinblock, soundboard, hitchpins, keyboard, and the jack action. It usually includes a solid bottom, and also internal bracing to maintain its form without warping under the tension of the strings. Cases varied greatly in weight and sturdiness: Italian harpsichords often used very light construction, while heavier construction is found in the later Flemish instruments and those derived from them.

The case also gives the harpsichord its external appearance and protects the instrument. A harpsichord of the 18th century is, in a sense, a kind of furniture, as it stands alone on legs and is usually styled in a manner similar to the furniture of its place and time. But this conception emerged only gradually. Early Italian instruments were so light in construction that they were treated rather like violins: kept for storage in protective outer cases and played by extracting them from their cases and placing them on a table.

(uch tables were often quite high, since until the late 18th century people usually played standing up.

Eventually, harpsichords came to be built with just a single case, though a curious intermediate stage also existed: the "false inner-outer", which for purely aesthetic reasons was built to look as if the outer case contained an inner one, in the old style.

Even after harpsichords had become self-encased objects, they often were supported by separate stands, and only gradually came to have their own legs.

In the fully evolved instrument, there is lid that can be raised, a cover for the keyboard, and a stand for holding music in place.

Harpsichords were decorated in a great many ways: plain buff paint (e.g. some Flemish instruments), paper printed with patterns, leather or velvet coverings, chinoiserie, and occasionally highly elaborate painted artwork.

While the terms used to denote various members of the family have been quite standardized today, in the harpsichord's heyday, this was not the case.

In modern usage, a harpsichord can either mean all the members of the family, or more specifically, the grand-piano-shaped member, with a vaguely triangular case accommodating long bass strings at the left and short treble strings at the right; characteristically, the profile is more elongated than that of a modern piano, with a sharper curve to the bentside.

The virginals is a smaller and simpler rectangular form of the harpsichord with only one string per note running parallel to the keyboard on the long side of the case.

A harpsichord with the strings set at an angle to the keyboard (usually of about 30 degrees) is called a spinet. In such an instrument, the strings are too close to fit the jacks between them in the normal way; instead, the strings are arranged in pairs, the jacks are placed in the large gaps between pairs, and they face in opposite directions, plucking the strings adjacent to the gap.

A clavicytherium is a harpsichord of which the soundboard and strings are mounted vertically and thus face the player. Since the strings run vertical, the jacks must move in the horizontal plane, which is why the action of clavecytheria is more involved than in harpsichords since the direction of the key-movement (up and down) must be made to go forward and back. The same space-saving principle was later embodied in the upright piano.

Curiously, some of the earliest harpsichords for which we have evidence are clavicytheria. One surviving example from the late 15th century is kept at the Royal College of Music in London.

The clavicytherium may have been one of the candidates for harpsichord actions during the early days of the instrument, when alternatives vied, but ultimately was almost entirely defeated by the standard horizontal harpsichord, which has the advantage of being able to rely on the direct force of gravity to return the jacks to their rest position.

However, clavicytheria continued to be made from time to time throughout the historical period. In the 18th century particularly fine clavicytheria were made by Albertus Delin, a Flemish builder.

Several harpsichords with heavily modified keyboards, such as the archicembalo, were built in the 16th century to accommodate variant tuning systems demanded by compositional practice and theoretical experimentation.

Generally, earlier harpsichords have smaller ranges and later ones larger, though there are frequent exceptions. In general, the largest harpsichords have a range of just over five octaves and the smallest have under four. Usually, the shortest keyboards were given extended range in the bass using the method of the "short octave." Tuning Pitch in nowadays' practice is taken often at a=415 Hz, a semitone below modern standard concert pitch of a=440 Hz. An accepted exception is for French baroque repertoire which is often performed from a=392 Hz, yet again one semitone lower. No doubt this is overly simplified, but common practice. Historically, tuning would commence on C or F.

The harpsichord was most probably invented in the late Middle Ages. By the 1500's, harpsichord makers in Italy were making lightweight instruments with low string tension. A different approach was taken in Flanders starting in the late 1500s, notably by the Ruckers family. Their harpsichords used a heavier construction and produced a more powerful and distinctive tone. They included the first harpsichords with two keyboards, used for transposition.

Except for being used for continuo-playing in opera performances, in the late 18th century the harpsichord was supplanted by the piano and disappeared from view for most of the 19th century. 20th century efforts to revive the harpsichord initially involved much importation of piano technology, in the form of heavy strings and metal frames. Starting in mid century, ideas about harpsichordmaking underwent a major change, when builders such as Frank Hubbard, William Dowd, and Martin Skowroneck sought to re-establish the building traditions of the Baroque period. Harpsichords of this type of historically informed building practice dominate the current scene.

The first music written specifically for solo harpsichord came to be published around the early 16th century. Composers who wrote solo harpsichord music were numerous during the whole Baroque era in Italy, Germany and, above all, France. Favorite genres for sole harpsichord composition included the dance suite, the fantasia, and the fugue. Besides solo works, the harpsichord was widely used for accompaniment in the basso continuo style (a function it maintained in opera even into the 19th century). Well into the 18th century, the harpsichord was considered to have some advantages over the piano.

Through the 19th century, the harpsichord was virtually supplanted by the piano. In the 20th century, however, composers returned to the instrument, as they sought out variation in the sounds available to them. Under the influence of Arnold Dolmetsch, Violet Gordon-Woodhouse (1872-1951) and in France, Wanda Landowska (1879-1959), were at the forefront of the instrument's renaissance.

Concertos for the instrument were written by Francis Poulenc (the Concert Champêtre, 1927-28), Manuel de Falla, Bertold Hummel, Henryk Górecki, Philip Glass, and Roberto Carnevale. Bohuslav Martinů wrote both a concerto and a sonata for the instrument, and Elliott Carter's Double Concerto is scored for harpsichord, piano and two chamber orchestras.

In chamber music, György Ligeti wrote a small number of solo works for the instrument (including Continuum), while Henri Dutilleux's Les Citations (1991) is scored for harpsichord, oboe, double bass and percussions. Both Dmitri Shostakovich (Hamlet, 1964) and Alfred Schnittke (Symphony No.8, 1998) wrote works that use the harpsichord as part of the orchestral texture.

The type of instrument now usually called harpsichord in English is generally called a clavicembalo (sometimes in the corrupt form gravicembalo, both masculine) or simply cembalo in Italian, and this last word is generally used in German as well (Cembalo, neuter). The Dutch word is klavecimbel (neuter). The typical French word is clavecin (masculine), though in French historical sources the word épinette (feminine, cognate with English spinet) is sometimes used, in a global sense, meaning any instrument with a harpsichord-like action. The standard Spanish word is clavecín (masculine), with clavicémbalo as an alternative (along with the rarer forms clavicímbalo and clavicímbano; all masculine). The Portuguese words are espineta (feminine) and cravo (masculine, cognate with the element clav- in the Italian words for the instrument).

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