Those who caught our Canberra concert on the radio in March will remember the interview with the builder of the splendid harpsichord we used for the performance. As promised, here are the details of the very talented Dominic Parker.

phone: + 61 2 44444 144

email: dufusdad@westnet.com.au

Read on for more details about the history of the wonderful harpsichord…

The earliest surviving description of an instrument resembling the harpsichord dates back to 1440. The simple design of it, a series of strings which are plucked, is known throughout many folk traditions (zithers, cimbaloms) but the addition of the keyboard makes it a particularly western European instrument.

Alongside its keyboard companion the organ, the harpsichord very quickly became a dominant instrument in the Renaissance and Baroque, serving as a solo instrument with a wide variety of range and character but it also was very important as an accompanying instrument and especially a vital pedagogical tool. Many if not all musicians of the 16th to 18th centuries would have had some basic harpsichord skills.
Throughout its 350 year life, the basic design of the instrument did not change too much. It was a keyboard instrument built with a wooden frame. On each key rested a slim vertical piece of wood called a jack, with a small plectrum (originally made of crow quill, nowadays delrin plastic) hanging just below the string. As the key was depressed, the plectrum plucked the string and as the key came back to its rest position, a small felt damper would drop to choke the string. EASY. Often one key operated several jacks, each playing a string of different pitch or sound quality. These could be added or removed like the stops on an organ.

Various nations worked on this simple idea and changed some construction elements. Today we can examine five national styles of harpsichord. There are many more, but here are the basic discernible features:

ITALIAN harpsichords were very popular in the 16th and early 17th century. Their frames were lightly constructed, the range not often more than 3&1/2 octaves.Two sets of strings tuned at the same pitch (to use organ terminology: 2 x 8’) were made of brass. Italian instruments are fiery and penetrating.

FLEMISH harpsichords became dominant in the 17th century, and were built with a more muscular frame. Originally they had one keyboard. Their two sets of strings, one tuned an octave higher (1 x 8’, 1 x 4’), were mostly strung in iron with brass in the bass. Flemish harpsichords are proud and brilliant.

FRENCH harpsichords were influenced by the Flemish style. Their range was increased to a full five octaves. There were two keyboards (think of the baroque equivalent of 2 Roland DX-7s stacked on one another) and the upper, with one set of strings, could be coupled to the bottom, which had the Flemish set-up, thus operating up to three sets of strings (2 x 8’, 1 x 4’). The plucking point of the string was different. French harpsichords are plummy and majestic.

GERMAN harpsichords became prominent in the 18th century. Their sound was influenced by the striking features of the Italian but built with much heavier frames. The general set-up was two keyboards, but one with three has survived with an incredible string disposition (1 x 16’, 2 x 8’, 1 x 4’, 1 x 2’!!). German harpsichords are resonant and powerful.

ENGLISH harpsichords were the most spectacular and were popular towards the end of the 18th century. Their setup was not much different to the French, but they were styled in magnificent thick oak cases. The range was pushed well past 5 octaves. The instruments made use of all sorts of interesting gadgets, such as knee levers which slowly added or removed all the registers of strings, or pedals which opened an closed a Venetian swell enclosing the strings, to create crescendos and diminuendos. English harpsichords are dominating and magnificent.

A new musical language was ushered in at the close of the 18th century, and the baroque style gave way to the Classical style. At this stage, the piano was certainly no louder than the harpsichord: far from it. But the harpsichord was no longer suitable for the new aesthetics: the piano was. Like many instruments, the harpsichord lay dormant waiting to be rediscovered, and its vibrant character has since become appreciated by a new audience.

- Donald Nicolson