The harpsichord is the distinguished, classical ancestor of the piano. Its shape, described as a large wing shape, was developed hundreds of years before the similar shape of the grand piano. But the operation of the harpsichord and its history are far different from those of its descendant.
The piano player makes music by fingering keys that strike tightly stretched strings within the piano, and by pushing pedals with the feet that change the dynamics (loudness, softness, and length of tone) of the struck strings. Within the harpsichord, the back of the key is attached not to a hammer but to a vertical jack that has a vertical slot containing a swinging tongue. The tongue grips a plectrum, or pick. As the player's finger strikes the key, the jack rises, and the plectrum lifts up and plucks the string. As it falls back past the string, the swinging tongue moves to pass the string without touching it and producing a sound. A lightweight spring pushes the tongue back to its original position so the plectrum is ready to pluck the string with the next stroke of that key. In the first 500 years or so of the harpsichord's history, the plectrum was a quill from the wing of a turkey, eagle, raven, or crow; later plectrums were made of leather or plastic. After plucking the string (which is not as tightly bound as a piano string), the jack has a release device that returns it to the rest position. The harpsichord's tone depends on where the string is plucked along its length, and the material composing the plectrum. The harpsichord does not have pedals to modify its dynamics; after the string is plucked, its sound dies quickly. Large harpsichords were better able to produce changes in dynamics, but did not come close to the range of dynamics possible with a piano.
The apparent limitations of the dynamics of the harpsichord caused composers who wrote for the harpsichord to be creative, and skilled players can also enhance the dynamics to a certain degree. Composers used music filled with trills and other ornamentation to make a more continuous sound. Players learn to make joined and detached sounds called legato and staccato. While the lack of dynamics seems to limit the harpsichord, the instrument also has a uniquely beautiful tone that is prized by professional musicians and other admirers who want the elegant instrument in their homes and even purchase kits for constructing their own harpsichords.
The cases of harpsichords are beautifully shaped and, historically, have been elegantly ornamented and painted. But the case is also critical to the sound. The case has five parts: the long straight side to the player's left is the spine; the short end is also straight and is called the tail; the bentside to the player's right forms a long, gentle curve (like the underside of the wing shape); another short, straight piece called the cheek is immediately to the player's right; and the bottom, which closes the instrument, forms both a structural and acoustic base for the keyboard. The wrest plank is another wooden component that holds the keyboard in place so it is seated on the bottom. The case must provide the strength to resist the tension of the strings, so, internally, the case contains a bracing system to balance the tensions.
The history of the harpsichord is distinguished by type of instrument, the century in which it was made and played, and national school. The national schools of the greatest importance are French, Italian, German, Flemish, and English. The harpsichord's close relatives include the clavicymbalum, the virginal, the lautenwerk, the clavichord, the spinette, and, of course, the later instrument, the piano. The first of these—the clavicymbalm—is mentioned in documents dating from 1397 in Padua, Italy. The oldest clavicymbalm that still exists was built in Bologna, Italy, in 1521. The earliest instrument called a harpsichord was mentioned in 1514. It was short in length, had a thick case, and was a so-called single manual, meaning it had one set of keys. Instruments called double manuals that had two sets of keys like a modern organ and stops, also like an organ, were known at about the same time. For example, a harpsichord listed among the expenses for the court of England's King Henry VIII in 1530 was called "a pair of virginals in one coffer with four stops." The sets of manuals were matched internally with sets of strings called choirs; that is, a single manual had a single choir, and a double manual was connected to a double choir of strings.
Venice, Italy, and Antwerp, Belgium, were two centers of production of harpsichords in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Venetian style had a long, thin body that was made of cypress wood and had an ornately decorated outer case. The Venetian instrument had either a single 8-ft-long (2.4-m-long) choir or two choirs measuring 8 ft (2.5 m) in length (the length of the choir plus the depth of the keys was the approximate total length of the harpsichord). The Flemish school based in Antwerp was led by the Ruckers family. They built both harpsichords and virginals that had thicker bodies, painted cases, and double choirs and manuals. The Ruckers's harpsichords were valued for their beautiful resonance and tone and were exported all over Europe. In England and France, the Ruckers creations were popular and copied. The French Blanchet family made its own versions of the Ruckers harpsichord that were even more elaborately painted and lacquered; by 1750, they were the official harpsichord makers for the royal court of France.
The Germans also made prized instruments. Hamburg was their center of manufacture, and they favored large, heavy instruments with extra registers, pedal-type keyboards, and as many of five choirs of strings plucked by three sets of manuals. These instruments were the ones favored by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), perhaps the greatest composer for, and friend of, the harpsichord. English-style instruments lacked the painting and ornamentation of the Continental styles and had cases faced with walnut or oak veneer.
By the early 1800s, the harpsichord had fallen out of favor and the piano was becoming increasingly popular. From 1809 until well into the twentieth century, harpsichords were not played in Europe or America. As an industry, harpsichord making simply vanished until the present, modern revival in which instrument builders pride themselves on reproducing the great historic harpsichords of the national schools and, primarily, of the eighteenth century.
Wood is the chief material composing a harpsichord. Wood from the American trees basswood and yellow poplar, Northern European linden, and the European tulip poplar are used to make harpsichord cases for most types except German harpsichords. The cases of German-style instruments are made entirely of pine; American makers use Ponderosa pine. Harder woods including oak, maple, walnut, beech, and spruce are used for structural supports inside the cases.
Traditionally, soundboards are made of Norway spruce, which grows over much of the European continent as far south as the Apennine mountains in Northern Italy. An American species, the Ingleman spruce, is similar to the Norway spruce and is sometimes used in the United States. Fir trees are also used occasionally. Many American makers import the Norway spruce, but supplies are becoming more limited as pollution threatens the spruce forests.
Other materials include ebony, basswood, and ivory for the key tops. Animal glues are used (modern synthetic glues do not work as well), and metal is used for the strings. Brass wire is drawn in a wrought process; harpsichord makers work with local brass founders to make sure the manufacturing process is correct. Other hardware includes wood screws, turning pins that are made by a European supplier, parts of the harpsichord action like jacks and jack slides that are purchased in large quantities, hooks that are also common to piano-making, and "roses" (ornamental pieces that cover the opening in the soundboard).
To finish harpsichords, the natural wood may be varnished and polished, but the outside of most harpsichords is painted, and painting begins with laying down a gesso finish. Gesso is a mixture of finely ground chalk and glue. Colored paints are usually so-called "Japanned colors" made of pigment and oil that is applied over the gesso and that produces a high gloss. Many coats may be used. The leather rose is gilded, and gilt work may also be a part of the painted trim or other ornamentation.
Design of a harpsichord is based exclusively on tradition and existing, historical instruments; that is, there is no such thing as a new harpsichord pattern, style, or sound. Harpsichord builders do make adjustments to existing designs, but most of these are out of necessity because historic materials are not available or are not desirable. For example, lead-based paints were used to decorate harpsichords in the past, and these are no longer desirable for health and environmental reasons.
To reproduce an existing harpsichord, for example, an instrument made in Paris in 1707, the harpsichord maker obtains drawings and measurements from the museum or institution where the 1707 model is presently housed. Museum experts have often restored historic instruments and used modern techniques to analyze the harpsichord's construction. X rays are useful in identifying types of internal fasteners, and fiber optics can be employed to look through the rose and into the guts of the instrument.
If data does not exist, the builder may request permission to do a detailed examination of the instrument. The builder makes drawings of every visible part of the instrument, starting by measuring the width and then proportioning the other parts. The builder has to keep in mind that the 1707 harpsichord was built on the old inch system, so any information that may be available from original construction must be converted to measurement systems in use today. The original builders did not have paper readily available to document each construction and probably relied on memory or a master book of guidelines. By simply proportioning, the modern maker can measure the parts of the case (including width, length, string length, and internal geometry) to within ±0.03 in (±1 mm); this is well within tolerances for modern handiwork. There is no need to be more precise than the original; sometimes a builder can overwork a design or restoration and spoil it by being too exact.
The harpsichord maker's shop resembles that of a cabinet maker, and harpsichord construction has a lot in common with ship building and cabinet making. The process of steaming wood and forming it to specific curves is part of the shipbuilder's art of constructing the curved prow of a ship. The process of carving and fitting the smaller pieces of the harpsichord requires the skills of a cabinet maker or master woodworker. The shop is also filled with cabinet-making tools like planes, chisels, rasps, and files. The major difference between the shops of a modern harpsichord builder and one from the eighteenth century is the presence of electrically powered tools, particularly band and table saws, in the present-day shop.
Other smaller pieces are also cut and curved by steam bending in sets of smaller jigs while the bentside is being made. The other sections of the case are straight; these include
In another distinct operation, the key blanks and key frames are cut. The frames are constructed with mortise and tenon joints. Most of the harpsichords reproduced today are "double manuals," meaning they have two keyboards. A detailed key-board pattern is marked on the single piece of wood used for each keyboard. The pattern shows the positions of the holes in the keys as well as the shape of the keys. The holes are drilled, and the keys are finished along their fronts before they are cut. The sharp cuts are marked, and the platings (surface coverings) for the natural keys are glued onto the blanks before the keys are cut using a band saw. Concentration and remarkable skill are needed for key-making because 1,008 holes are required for a set of two key-boards and the harpsichord keys have narrower spacing than those on a piano. The cross cuts along the fronts of the sharps are made and trimmed, the plating for the sharps is trimmed, and the fronts of the naturals are undercut so they have lighter weight and better balance in the frames.
The naturals are mounted on the key frames and leveled. The keys for the sharps are then fitted between the naturals and leveled. The sharp rise (the raised part of the sharp keys) is glued onto each sharp last. The platings on harpsichord keys also differ from those on pianos. French, German, and Flemish instruments have ebony or boxwood platings on the naturals and ivory on the sharps. Only Italian instruments seem to favor white or ivory naturals and black sharps. This difference, along with the narrower key spacings, makes it impossible to use factory-made piano keys for harpsichords.
To finish the keys, felt is glued onto the back of the keys, cut apart between each key, and trimmed. The upper keys have weights in the ends and are guided by pins
The harpsichord is strung and the jacks that pluck the strings are installed before the keys are mounted in the instrument and connected to the jacks to complete the instrument action. The instrument is voiced (tuned) with minor trimming of the tip of the plectra and adjustment of the action.
The harpsichord is a creation by artists for artists. Harpsichord makers are highly skilled wood workers, painters, and artists in many supporting crafts; they also play the instrument themselves and hold great reverence for fellow musicians who lovingly reproduce the music of great composers who wrote works unique to the harpsichord's sound. Their ability to channel this respect back into every aspect of construction of a single harpsichord is highly effective quality control.
Harpsichord makers typically produce different models in the styles of the national schools and various eras in harpsichord history. The manufacture of harpsichord kits for the home craftsman is a separate industry, and most harpsichord makers do not also make kits, although they may well have learned the craft from experimenting with kits. They also do not supply their hand-made harpsichord parts to others; parts (like jacks, key felt, or wire) can be either purchased from specialized suppliers or the harpsichord maker produces his or her own parts for private use.
Waste is very limited. Some wood scrap is generated, but the value of these rare woods prompts wood workers to use them efficiently. There is also little waste of paint, gesso, and other finishing supplies because they are hand-mixed in the quantity needed. The key to the production of a beautiful musical instrument is to be especially careful early in the process so that tiny mistakes do not multiply and create difficulties in completing construction or in voicing and playing the instrument.
Safety is an issue in the operation of electrically powered tools and in the surface finishing of harpsichords. Caution with the electrical supply and tools like power saws and sanders is essential. When dust is generated during wood working, craftspeople wear masks and sometimes respirators. All painting is done in a ventilated paint room.
The harpsichord's future seems secure for the moment. The development of the harpsichord kit has fostered a new group of enthusiasts who love the voice of the instrument, the opportunity to use their own skills in handcrafting such a project, and the chance to own a grand piece of musical history. A wide range of persons buy harpsichords from professional builders out of similar appreciation. About 25 professional harpsichord builders are active in the United States, and about 100 instruments per year are made in the United States for universities, orchestras, other music organizations, and private players.
According to harpsichord maker John Phillips (a self-taught builder who began with harpsichord kits), the greatest potential threat to the future of the harpsichord is the level of musical culture, especially in the United States. Music education in schools is being cut because of cost, and there is no doubt that private music training is expensive for most families. But it is through music education beginning at an early age that children come to appreciate fine music and explore less familiar instruments like the harpsichord. Hope rests in the fact that, once heard, the evocative sound of the harpsichord is seldom forgotten.
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— Gillian S. Holmes