Italian harpsichords are very lightly constructed – often consisting of an inner instrument made of cypress wood that can be lifted out of its outer case and placed on a table to be played. Later instruments were sometimes integrated with this outer case and lid, but some makers would style the instrument to give the false impression that it could be lifted out in this fashion. Their very light construction gives them a bright and immediate sound that is particularly suited to accompanying voices.
The builders of Flemish harpsichords were the first to make instruments with two keyboards, called manuals. These were called transposing harpsichords as they were placed apart at an interval of a fourth – so when you press an ‘F’ key on the lower keyboard it plucks the same strings as the ‘C’ key on the upper keyboard, which is the note that you actually hear. The Flemish instruments are often decorated on the outside and the inside of the case. Many of them had a detailed painting or a Latin motto on the inside of the lid, and the soundboards were decorated with pictures of flowers, birds, and sometimes even prawns.
Audio: Single manual harpsichord,Andreas I Ruckers, Antwerp, 1609.
French harpsichords are often very ornate, and their stands are frequently designed with curved cabriole legs. The instruments are designed to have a lot of different timbres or types of sound available to the performer, and French music is often written to take advantage of these different sounds. Character pieces depicting scenes or, indeed, people were very popular in France, as were arrangements of the latest opera ‘hits’.
The double-manual harpsichord made in 1769 by Pascal Taskin is probably the most famous harpsichord in the world, having been studied and copied by many modern historians and instrument makers. It was one of the first harpsichords to be made available as a copy in kit-form in the mid-twentieth century.
Audio: Double manual harpsichord, Jean Goermans/Pascal Taskin. Paris, 1763/83-84.
German harpsichords from the Hamburg area often feature a double curve in the bent side of the instrument (where most harpsichords have a single curve and a straight tailpiece). The German harpsichord in this collection, number 4314, is made by Johann Adolph Hass who also made clavichords, and has a very bright and clear sound. It’s dated 1764 and is thought to have been owned and played by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at some point in its life. The veneer on the case is not original, it would have originally been painted with chinoiserie (a type of mock-Chinese decoration), which was fashionable for both instrument and furniture decoration of the period.
Audio: Johann Adolph Hass, Hamburg, 1764 (4314).
Early English harpsichords are quite rare with only a small number surviving from before 1725. Those that do are often influenced in their design by the styles of instruments from other countries; for example, the Barton harpsichord of 1709 shares many features with some of the Italian instruments, being quite small and lightly constructed. However, the fashion in England for wood was very different, with instruments being made out of walnut and, later, mahogany.
Audio: Thomas Barton, London, 1709 (4479).
Harpsichords in England enjoyed a boost of popularity in the second quarter of the eighteenth century – and the majority of the English harpsichords in the collection date from after this time. A particular feature of these eighteenth century harpsichords is the use of veneer as decoration, from relatively simple panelling to the highly ornate work found on the 1755 Kirkman harpsichord. Another feature found on some English instruments is the “lute stop”, which produces a very distinctive nasal sound by plucking the string very close to its end, and which can be used as an extra musical colour.
Audio: Double-manual harpsichord, Jacob Kirckman, London, 1755 .
Some of the later English harpsichords had pedals. These were connected to devices that were designed to help the player get more musical colours or timbres out of an instrument, and to enable them to do so more easily. One of these devices is called a machine stop, and changes the number of strings that are plucked in the same way that the handstops do on most instruments: having a pedal allows the player to change the sounds without taking their hands off the keyboard. The other device that is sometimes found looks like a second lid inside the instrument; when a pedal is pressed this lid opens like a Venetian blind to allow more sound out of the instrument making it louder (or quieter when the swell is closed).
Audio: Single manual harpsichord, John Broadwood, London, 1793 .