Sunday, October 17, 2010

Harpsichords in History

The distinctive sound produced by a harpsichord has always held a certain fascination for me. A solo instrument that somewhat resembles a piano, it predated the latter. The earliest representation of a harpsichord is from this sculpture (left), a 15th century altarpiece.

Using the elements of the organ and psaltery (respectively, a keyboard, and metal strings held taut with tuning pins), the harpsichord gradually developed over time, with an increase in the size of the soundboard and keyboard.

The earliest extant harpsichord was made in Italy. During the 17th century, Flemish harpsichord builders added a second manual, a useful innovation to accommodate transposition (playing in another key) to accommodate a singer’s vocal range.
French makers expanded the two-manual instrument, and later, the English developed an instrument with brilliant treble and a more resonant bass, which contrasted with the more delicate sound of the French instrument, more like a woodwind sound.

With the invention of the piano, harpsichords fell out of favor, but the instrument became popular again during the twentieth century, and was frequently used in concerts to lend authenticity to music composed for the harpsichord.

During the 1950s, harpsichord kits came into vogue. Through the years, I’ve always wanted to get a kit and build one, but the task of assembling the kit sounded daunting. I’m hoping some day to own a harpsichord. I have CDs of harpsichord music, and the sound evokes an image of an 18th-century parlor, complete with an elaborately-dressed girl seated at the keyboard—wonderful background music for a Renaissance historical, don’t you think?


Jacqueline Seewald said...

I love the sound of harpsicord music. It is quite unique. Thanks for the historical background on it.

Karen Michelle Nutt said...

I love the harpsichord-- and the artwork on some of these pieces unbelievable. It's a shame some of the original harpsichords didn't survive.

I looked into the kits, too. Way to much involved and buying one put together isn't in the budget. lol

I enjoyed the post.

Joyce Elson Moore said...

Hi Jacqueline: I'm surprised, hues, that more people don't own them, but everyone always buys pianos for their kids to learn. Why not a harpsichord? Glad yu stopped by--so we have that in common, too--we both like harpsichord music.

Joyce Elson Moore said...

Hi Karen: I snooped around your website--nice site! I guess it's like those antinque-car kits that sound easy, but I know from a friend's experience, it was a nightmare. I did see quite a few harpsichords at a museum in Florence. Yes, the artwork on some of the cases was to die for. Thanks for stopping by my blog!