The harpsichord is a keyboard instrument in which the strings are plucked mechanically. It was an important keyboard instrument in Europe from the 15th Century through the 18th Century. It was revived in the 20th Century and is widely played today.

These instruments were pleasing but unspectacular in their tone
and serve well for accompanying singers or other instruments.

It was around 1500 when the Italian took over the makings of the harpsichord and it was then developed further. All the harpsichords were made to be plucked by simple jacks sliding in a guide between a keyboard and a jack rail. The Italian case is light and the stress of the strings supported by internal knees. The keyboard range has doubled from the earlier northern instruments. These earliest Italian harpsichord makers made single-manual instruments with a very light construction and relatively little string tension.

 


By 1640, two fundamental strings played together predominated in Italian practice and most of the old ones were converted to this style. The Italian practice then remained largely unchanged as long as the harpsichord was used. Further development of harpsichords was based on the Flemish models of the late 1500s.

During this century, the range of the harpsichord was increased. Most early instruments cover less than 4 octaves, which from this time onwards, it was gradually expanded to 5 octaves.

By 1700, the number of strings of the harpsichord increased, large instruments often having three choirs per note. And, the choirs were now designed to be easily selected by the player in various combinations for different sound effects.

Two manual harpsichord became more common. The choirs usually used by an upper manual were voiced more quietly than those used by the lower, allowing choice of a contrast of loud and soft, as well as a tonal contrast.

From the 17th Century to the end of the 18th Century, the harpsichord was the indispensable supporting basis for continuo in almost every instrument combination, as well as being a popular domestric instrument. This was the instrument for which the Couperins, J.S.Bach, Handel, Haydn, and the other great northern composers wrote.

Towards the end of the historical period larger and more elaborate Italian instruments were built, notably by
Bartolomeo Cristofori (the same person who later invented the piano).

With the development of the piano, the harpsichord fell into semi-oblivion during the 19th Century, but in the 20th Century it has been revived both by modern composers.

~ Written by Boon Sin Ler

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