Harpsichord: history, video, interesting facts, listen

Musical Instrument: Harpsichord

Surely at concerts you noticed a musical instrument similar to a piano, but much smaller in size, with several keyboards and a completely different, ringing metallic sound? The name of this instrument is harpsichord. In each country it is called differently: in France and Russia it is the harpsichord, in Italy - the balm (and sometimes the key of the balo), in England - the harpsichord. The harpsichord is a keyboard stringed musical instrument from which sound is extracted in a pinch manner.


The harpsichord sound is difficult to confuse with any other instrument, it is special, brilliant and jerky. As soon as you hear this sound, ancient dances, balls, and noble court ladies in magnificent dresses with unimaginable hairstyles immediately appear. The main difference between the harpsichord is that its sound cannot smoothly change its dynamics, like other instruments. In order to solve this problem, the masters have come up with adding other registers, which are turned on with the help of manual switches and levers. They are located on the sides of the keyboard. A little later, there were also footswitches to facilitate the game.

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Interesting Facts

  • The harpsichord was always considered an aristocratic instrument that decorated the salons and halls of the richest people in Europe. That is why in the old days it was made of expensive varieties of wood, the keys were covered with plates of tortoiseshell, mother-of-pearl, and sometimes they were encrusted with precious stones.
  • Have you noticed that some harpsichords have lower keys black and upper white all exactly the opposite than a piano or a piano? Harpsichord with such coloring keys were common in France in the XVII century. As historians explain, such a keyboard finish was associated with the gallant style prevailing at that time in art - the snow-white hands of harpsichordists looked very elegant and embossed on the black keyboard.
  • At first, the harpsichord was placed on the table, a little later the craftsmen added beautiful legs.
  • At one time, the conductor had to sit behind the harpsichord, and he managed to play with his left hand, and with the right hand to lead the musicians.
  • Trying to recreate the sound of the harpsichord, some masters went to the trick. Thus, in the Soviet October Red piano, made in Soviet times, the third pedal lowers a special fabric onto the strings, to which metal tongues are attached. Hammers hit them and there is a characteristic sound. The same construction is in the Soviet piano "Accord".
  • Footswitches on the harpsichord appeared only in 1750.
  • At first, the dynamics of the sound was changed by doubling and trebling the strings, only in the 17th-18th centuries did they begin to produce instruments with 2 or even 3 manuals arranged one above another with different registers. In this case, the upper manual was set to an octave higher.
  • For a long time, the instrument of the Italian master Hieronymus in 1521 was considered the oldest harpsichord to be preserved to our days. However, the more ancient harpsichord, made on September 18, 1515 by Vincentus from Livigimeno, was later found.
  • The 16th century harpsichords were predominantly of Italian origin (Venice) and were made of cypress. French instruments with two keyboards (manuals) were made of walnut wood.
  • Most harpsichords have a lute register, it is characterized by a nasal timbre. In order to achieve such a sound, the strings were muffled with pieces of fabric made of felt or leather.
  • In the Middle Ages at the court of the Spanish king Philip II was the so-called "cat harpsichord." It was a device consisting of a keyboard and a rectangular box with several compartments where the cats were placed. Before this, the animals were auditioned, stepping on their tails, and placed on their voices. Then the tails of the unfortunate cats were fixed under the keys, when pressed, they pierced the needle. The animal screamed strongly, and the performer continued to play his melody. It is known that Perth I also ordered the "cat's harpsichord" for his kunstkamery.
  • The famous French harpsichordian F. Couperin has a treatise The Art of Playing the Harpsichord, which musicians enjoy even today.
  • It was Kuperin who began to actively use his thumb (first finger) when playing the harpsichord, before that, the musicians played only four, and the fifth was not involved. This idea was soon intercepted by other performers.
  • The famous performer Handel, in his childhood, was forced to practice playing the harpsichord in the attic, as his father was against the career of a musician and dreamed that his son received a law degree.
  • Interestingly, the action of the jumper was described by W. Shakespeare in his 128 sonnet.
  • The musicians who played the harpsichord were called keyboards, as they successfully owned the organ and the clavichord.
  • It is noteworthy that the range of the concert harpsichord of the mid-18th century was wider than that of the piano, which later displaced it


I.S. Bach - Concerto for harpsichord, strings and basso continuo in D major (listen)

M. Corett - Concerto for harpsichord with orchestra in D minor (listen)

G.F. Handel - Suite for harpsichord No. 4 Sarabande (listen)


Externally, the harpsichord looks a bit like a grand piano. The elongated triangular shape is complemented by beautiful legs, and the strings in it are arranged horizontally, parallel to the keys. Each key is equipped with a pusher, it is sometimes also called a jumper, and a tongue is fixed at its upper end. The sound of the harpsichord is extracted with a pinch. When you press a key, elastic tongues made of bird feathers are set in motion, in more modern models plastic ones have already been used. They catch a tight string, and because of this, there is a characteristic sound of a pinch.

History of origin

The first information about this instrument can be attributed to the year 1511, therefore it is believed that it originated in the 16th century. However, a little later there was a new information that in the Italian source of 1397 (the “Decameron” by J. Boccaco) there is also information about the instrument. The oldest image dates back to 1425 - on the altar in Minden.

Its origin, the harpsichord is obliged to the psaltery. The design of this old predecessor was treason and a keyboard mechanism was attached. The first harpsichords were not very similar to the modern version. They were rectangular in shape and outwardly resembled the “free” clavichord, only its strings were of different lengths.

At one time, the harpsichord was very popular and was successfully used in ensembles, orchestra. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the instrument became widely used as a solo instrument. The peculiar timbre of the harpsichord corresponded to this gallant time. By the beginning of the 19th century, the instrument was practically out of use, until the culture of playing it was revived at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.


The name "harpsichord" belongs to keyboard instruments with a range of up to 5 octaves and having a pterygoid shape. There are also smaller varieties of instruments that come with one set of strings, and their range reaches only 4 octaves. So, among them stand out: the spinet, in which the strings are located diagonally, the müselair - a rectangular shape and strings located strictly perpendicular to the keyboard. In addition, species belongs to virginel.

Watch the video: Harpsichord 101 - How It Works (October 2019).

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