Harpsichord

Courtesy of Peter Newble
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The range of older harpsichords will vary. But a modern harpsichord will usually manage this range of pitch. Courtesy of Hannah Whale.

The twinkly, rattling sound of a harpsichord used to be everywhere in music. It’s an old instrument and was once very popular: many homes would have had one, and composers wrote plenty of music for it.

Its main job in orchestral pieces was to give a good foundation to the music: it isn’t prominent but it can be heard in the background as a constant companion to the other instruments.

Years ago, harpsichordists often had to conduct whilst playing the harpsichord. So today’s players sometimes have to do the same multitasking to give the audience a flavour of how it was 200 years ago.

In the 18th century the piano came along and basically took over. These days, composers don’t usually write for the harpsichord and it’s not a member of the symphony orchestra.

However, in the middle of the 20th century, people started to perform older music on older instruments. Instead of letting the piano play everything, they decided that the harpsichord should be given back its own music. So, if a composer in the 17th century wrote a piece including a harpsichord and it’s being performed in a concert, the harpsichord comes back to play its part.

You can’t vary the ‘dynamics’ on a harpsichord – i.e. you can’t play it more loudly or more softly.

When the harpsichord is part of an orchestra or ensemble, the music on the page often has numbers instead of notes. This is called ‘figured bass’ and it indicates which chords to play. If the player wants to put a few extra notes in, that’s fine. There’s quite a lot of freedom. But the main function of the harpsichord was to provide a solid foundation to the music.

Apart from rooting orchestral pieces with constant sprightly sound, it also features in:

Concertos: Many from the Baroque and early Classical eras; even one or two from the 20th century.

Chamber music: Years ago, a lot of wealthy families had harpsichords so plenty of chamber music was written to be played by small groups at home.

Solo pieces: No shortage of solo music by Baroque composers such as J.S. Bach, Handel and Domenico Scarlatti – Scarlatti wrote over 550 sonatas for the harpsichord!

It’s called a ‘harpsichord’ because, inside, its strings are plucked, like the strings of a harp. It’s like a horizontal harp in a wooden box with a keyboard!

Construction of the harpsichord

Harpsichords are often beautifully decorated. They were highly prized pieces of furniture as well as musical instruments.

Harpsichord keys, courtesy of iStock

Harpsichord keys

Harpsichords have been made in all shapes and sizes. They usually have a wing-shaped body made of wood – like the grand piano, only not as thick and heavy. The top is a lid on hinges: it can be lifted up so that you can hear the sound more easily.

Inside the body – underneath the lid – are metal strings. These are plucked by a ‘plectrum’ when you press the keys.

The plectrum often used to be a quill (the hard, white bit at the bottom of a bird’s feather). Now it’s more usually plastic. The jack, which holds the plectrum, is made of wood.

There are often two manuals – which means two keyboards.

On a piano, the big bottom row of keys is white and the little top row is black. On a harpsichord they’re often the other way round, so the big ones are black and the little ones are white.

To play it

The keys of a harpsichord are a bit like a see-saw. When you press down one end (the end you see on the keyboard), the other end (which you can’t see) comes up. On this other end is a little piece of wood called a jack, and inside the jack is a plectrum. As the end comes up, the plectrum plucks the string.

Courtesy of Arthur Ka Wai Jenkins

Usually there are two or three sets of strings. This means that when you press a key, the plectrum will pluck more than one string for that note. It makes the sound a bit stronger.

The quill for the plectrum used to be from a large wild bird, like a raven or a crow.

Harpsichord players do a lot of trilling and twiddling. The notes don’t last very long when you play them, so it helps to keep the sound alive if you ‘decorate’ it with little notes in between the bigger ones.

Find out more about the development of the Harpsichord in .

A Little History of the Harpsichord

Keyboards in orchestras

In the Baroque era (1600–1750) a keyboard instrument was often found in orchestras. It made the bass line stronger and played harmonies to support the other instruments. If the performance was in a church, this would often be the organ’s responsibility; otherwise, it was normally up to the harpsichord.

This keyboard part was called the ‘continuo’. If it was played on the harpsichord, it was usually managed by the person directing the performance. He really had to multi-task: his fingers had to move non-stop over the keys (no rests in his part!), and whenever he could he’d wave an arm and remind the orchestra that he was in charge.

This idea of automatically having a keyboard part in pieces lasted into the early days of the symphony, in the 18th century. After that, orchestras grew in size and sound, and didn’t need the support of a harpsichord anymore.

Keyboard instruments since then have been used in the orchestra to add an extra layer of sound, or to play solo concertos.

Harpsichord’s beginnings

The harpsichord appeared in the 1500s. Because it has a keyboard, several notes can be played at once. This was a big bonus for composers and orchestras, so the harpsichord quickly became very busy.

Its rival, the clavichord, just wasn’t up to the job: it wasn’t loud enough to be heard through the orchestra.

A performance of a Haydn symphony these days might have a multi-tasking conductor who will play the harpsichord as well as direct the orchestra. That’s a lot to think about! This gives the audience a flavour of how it was, 200 years ago.

The harpsichord did two things:

  1. Spiced up the orchestra’s sound.
  2. Played many solo keyboard pieces.
Harpsichord in trouble

But it had a problem! Its ‘dynamics’ couldn’t be varied – i.e., you couldn’t play it more loudly or more softly. It had seen off the clavichord, but in the 18th century another intruder appeared on the scene: the piano.

The early piano looked like a harpsichord. But it worked in a different way and it could play loudly or softly. The harpsichord was in trouble!

There were some attempts to make the harpsichord better:

– ‘Stops’ were added, so you could choose to make it sound a bit different.

– A volume control was put on it… but it wasn’t very effective.

The harpsichord couldn’t compete. The piano was too impressive. By the middle of the 19th century the harpsichord was beaten, and for 100 years it was neglected.

Today

Now, however, the harpsichord’s historical sound is treasured. It’s kept alive by performances of early music, and by experts who remind listeners how important it actually is.

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 The strings of a harpsichord are…

a. Struck
b. Plucked
c. Bowed

 What colour, usually, are the keys of a harpsichord?

a. Black and white
b. Black and blue
c. Grey and green

 The harpsichord is often involved in music from which era?

a. Medieval
b. Romantic
c. Baroque

 What other instrument might a harpsichord player be able to play?

a. Harp
b. Timpani
c. Piano

 Which French composer wrote a kind of concerto for the harpsichord in the 20th century?

a. Claude Debussy
b. Francis Poulenc
c. Maurice Ravel

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Selected Harpsichord Highlights

Domenico Scarlatti (1685–1757)
Keyboard Sonata in F minor, K. 467 / L. 476 / P. 513: Allegrissimo (extract)

The harpsichord sounding energetic by itself in music from the Baroque era.

Performers: Laurence Cummings, harpsichord

Taken from Naxos 8.554724

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048: I. Allegro – II. Cadenza (extract)

The harpsichord provides solid support underneath the other instruments, and then has some fancy twiddling on its own!

Performers: Cologne Chamber Orchestra; Helmut Müller-Brühl

Taken from Naxos 8.554607

Francis Poulenc (1899–1963)
Concert champêtre: I. Allegro molto (extract)

Out with the old and in with the new: the harpsichord keeping up with more modern times in music from the 20th century.

Performers: Elisabeth Chojnacka, harpsichord; Orchestre National de Lille; Jean-Claude Casadesus

Taken from Naxos 8.554241

Works Featuring Harpsichord

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Concerto in the Italian Style, BWV 971, ‘Italian Concerto’

Bach’s ‘Italian Concerto’ is often heard on the piano but he wrote it for the harpsichord. It was published in 1735 in a collection of pieces that contrasted a French style of music with an Italian style of music. A lively first movement, a slower songlike middle movement, and final fast movement fits the pattern of concertos written in Italy by composers such as Vivaldi. Just listen to the final Presto (track 3). ‘Presto’ means fast: not only is the energy non-stop, but so is the invention – the way the notes twist and turn, like a roller coaster!

Performers: Laurence Cummings, harpsichord

Taken from Naxos 8.554724

Domenico Scarlatti (1685–1757)
Keyboard Sonata in D major, K. 119 / L. 415 / P. 217: Allegro

Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas (over 550 of them) contain ideas and sounds that can seem amazing for the time he was writing. Sometimes the notes scrunch, as if they come from a piece written 300 years later. The scrunches are only brief, but they make a real impact. In this one, there are weighty chords repeated at the start, like a hammer – it’s vigorous music. For one or two satisfying scrunches, listen at 0.47–0.58. As in Bach’s ‘Italian Concerto’, there is wonderful sense of exploring in this music – an excitement at discovering whatever is round the corner!

Performers: Laurence Cummings, harpsichord

Taken from Naxos 8.554724

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714–1788)
Viola da gamba Sonata in C major, Wq. 136, H. 558

The harpsichord plays an accompanying role in thousands of works – supporting and enhancing the solo part of another instrument. This sonata was written in 1745–6 by C.P.E. Bach (a son of J.S. Bach) for the viola da gamba – an ancestor of the cello. It is played here on a cello, but the keyboard part remains on a harpsichord. You can hear how the limelight in the piece belongs to the cello, while the harpsichord’s job is to decorate the background, giving harmony to the cello’s line. In fact, its role is vital: the music would sound empty without it. So although our ears are attracted to the cello’s lovely tunes, we can be aware that the tinkling in the background is bringing everything alive!

Performers: Dmitry Kouzov, cello; Peter Laul, harpsichord

Taken from Naxos 8.570740

Francis Poulenc (1899–1963)
Concert champêtre

Poulenc wrote this bright, sparkling work – a kind of concerto for harpsichord – after he met a woman called Wanda Landowska in 1923: she was a pianist and harpischordist who was an expert in the study of early music. The harpsichord’s sound isn’t as strong as the piano’s and it could be overpowered by a modern orchestra. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear that it often plays on its own in gaps or accompanied by a light sound, and then the orchestra answers it or comes in after it. Listen, for example, at 1.54 in track 1: the harpsichord introduces the main theme on its own before other instruments join it; at 2.26 it has another little bit on its own; horns come in at 2.58 when the harpsichord stops and the harpsichord comes in again at 3.08. So there’s a lot of swapping over, in order that the harpsichord can be heard. The harpsichord cannot sustain notes, because the strings are plucked, so the orchestra often matches its short notes with quite spiky music.

Performers: Elisabeth Chojnacka, harpsichord; Orchestre National de Lille; Jean-Claude Casadesus

Taken from Naxos 8.554241