In the words of British composer Thomas Beckman the
harpsichord is, “The sound of harmony in composition.”
At onetime or another most everyone has heard the piano, not so
with the harpsichord. In
comparison with the piano hardly anyone has heard the harpsichord or
could recognize it. A
question begins to form—what role did the piano orchestrate in the
curtain call of the once popular harpsichord?
To begin, a harpsichord is an early keyboard instrument that
vaguely resembles a piano—the resemblance between the two ends there.
Instead of having one keyboard like a piano the harpsichord has
keys in rows called manuals.
There can be one to three manuals; usage is dictated by the
Smaller harpsichord variants, like virginals and spinets usually
had one manual, while Flemish, German, French, and English harpsichords
had two or more.
It was only in Italy that many harpsichords had three manuals.
This aberration may have had something to do with the composition
and style of dance and opera.
harpsichord dates back to the sixteenth century and the way it produces
sound is even older. A harpsichord makes music by plucking a
string; rather like a harp. Traditionally on the end of each key
sat a crow, raven, or dove quill called a plectrum. In the end of
this plectrum is a wooden stick, which sits on the end of the key.
When the key is depressed the wooden stick, called a jack, pushes upward
causing the plectrum to pluck the string. In this way it is almost
like plucking a harp string or the guitarist’s finger strumming.
In marked contrast to the more percussive action of the piano.
Music coming from the harpsichord is usually bright and sharp. The
main disadvantage of the harpsichord that makes it so difficult to play
is the inability to vary the sound or dynamic. There is a way to
make it seem as thought the sound is varied. This hard-to-achieve
skill requires the Harpsichordist to use multiple keyboards and
different keys to give the illusion. It is not uncommon to have a
hand on the first manual and the other on the second at a crisscross.
In this way the harpsichord is more personal instrument. One
literally needs to understand the personality of this instrument in
order to link music and soul.
The piano is a newer instrument, approximately 200 years old,
thus it has a “newer” way of producing sound.
Using a very complex system of weights and counterweights forces
the hammer to strike a stiff, taunt string.
In essence a pianist depresses a key which causes springs and
levers to propel the hammer against the corresponding string and this
action results in the unique sound and feel of the piano.
If one listens to the piano, tones seem richer and deeper than
that of the sharper and more abrupt harpsichord—thought different
always doesn’t translate to better.
Under the auspices of composers like Bach and Scarlatti, and
other Baroque masters, the harpsichord and its cousins were the first
chairs of the music world from 1550-1750.
Scarlatti alone wrote 500 sonatas (music shorts) most of which
included the harpsichord.
J.S. Bach wrote numerous pieces for it such as his Goldberg
Variations and English Suites, and this was just the tip of the musical
Unfortunately as history confirms, every musician only has so
many performances before the symphony closes.
For the harpsichord this happened after the death of Bach and
Scarlatti in the mid eighteenth century.
Up until this time there had been quiet dissention by a growing
number of musicians who wanted an instrument more musically versatile
but that still retained the unique feel and sound of the harpsichord.
For a while this was filled by a cousin of the harpsichord called
the clavichord; but due to the quietness of the instrument it didn’t
have much use other than for the parlor.
Research was in full swing from 1700 to 1740 when the product of
the experiments was born.
In 1740 the Pianoforte joined the musical ranks of such
noteworthy instruments as the harpsichord, the clavichord, and clavier.
Aside from structural and material changes the only difference
between a pianoforte and a piano was the addition of foot pedals in the
The reasoning behind the creation of the piano was to take all of
the good and successful characteristics of keyboard variants and combine
them into one instrument; in this way to create an Uberinstrument.
Soon this “new” technological wonder would sweep across
Europe from Vienna to London.
On the stage of musical history Beethoven and Mozart became
the star duet accompanied by the piano.
With this the solo that had been the harpsichord’s came to an
end; gone were the days of soaring simple sonatas and concertos.
Now it was the classical period with soaring symphonies and
Mozart and others were not content with what was seen as the
“staleness” in the music world.
They began to experiment with working around the melodies and
enhancing movement and dynamic.
The piano became the main tool for this, with the idea the
harpsichord would be retired completely.
This school of thought dominated until the 1950’s when music
historians started looking back upon musical history.
The school of traditionalism, emphasizing returning to the
original instruments took over the performing arena of classical music.
Finally, the piano would soon have to share the orchestra chamber
with the harpsichord.
Through trial and error, it was discovered that even though
older works sounded fine on the piano, too much evocative feel was lost.
This was true from the early 1700’s and before.
Obviously, they had not been written for the piano but with the
harpsichord in mind.
Notes and structure unique to the harpsichord could not be
translated adequately to the piano.
For many years music purists and traditionalists had kept the
harpsichord alive and stood firm in their belief that harpsichord and
piano music were not as compatible as believed.
Most felt that early music needed to be played upon the
harpsichord and it’s relatives.
Many felt that too much was lost when the old works where played
on a more modern instrument.
A supreme irony existed.
Certain music lost emotion when played on the piano, an
instrument that exudes feeling, while it was a warm, great, and grand
again on the “emotionless” harpsichord.
More showy and exuberant music of Mozart and other classical and
romantic composers sound cold and awkward on the harpsichord yet, when
performed on piano, it was joyful and mirthful the way it was intended
Upon first impression it would seem that the harpsichord is
doomed to play second fiddle to the piano.
It seems that the harpsichord will always be second chair when it
comes to a popularity contest.
Thank goodness classical music isn’t into what is popular and
Tradition and exactness are more important than anything else
even above participating in a musical “beauty contest.”
wonderful translations of Bach’s music have been performed upon piano.
One recalls the Goldberg Variations played by Glenn Gould. But, I
do hope you will got out and give the harpsichord a try. Music is
nothing more than story with or without words. The piano and
harpsichord tell different versions of the same story. But, no
translation is as good as what the original author has intended.