With its unique plucked sound, stately shape and often beautifully adorned exterior, the harpsichord is one of the most recognisable sounds and images of the glorious baroque. Its sprightly tone perfectly complements the complex writing of Bach and Couperin, and Mozart operas would not be the same without the bright, cheeky zip it adds to their recitatives. Similar in shape to the modern piano, the harpsichord is its more delicate cousin of which the strings are plucked, rather than hammered. The earliest surviving examples of the instrument date from the sixteenth century and although its popularity dwindled as the fortepiano came into fashion, specialists continue to make harpsichords today, often to sixteenth or seventeenth century specifications.
Each of the harpsichord’s strings is tightly coiled around a small tuning pin. When the pin is turned, it lessens or increases the length of the string, thus tuning the instrument accordingly. The strings lie taut across a wooden bridge, which is secured onto the soundboard (a thin piece of wood that assists in amplifying the sound of the strings). When a key is pressed, the jack (a thin piece of wood attached to the end of the key within the instrument) rises vertically. A plectrum attached to the jack plucks the string and quickly swivels round so as not to re-pluck it on its way back down. At the top of the jack there is a small piece of felt. This is the damper. When the jack falls back down, the damper rests on the string to cease it vibrating, ensuring that the sound is crisp and short. In some instruments there is a second row of jacks to achieve the ‘lute stop’, which gives the notes a more ‘plucked’ quality. This and other effects are controlled by stops or levers, similar to those on an organ.
The keyboard section of the instrument is called the manual. Early harpsichords had just one manual; subsequently second and sometimes third manuals were added as the instrument developed. A common feature of music from the baroque period is repeated phrases that can sound laboured and wearisome if not handled with care. With a quiet stop on one manual and a loud stop on the other, the player can heighten the effect by alternating between the keyboards. To achieve the loudest sound on a harpsichord, the manuals are coupled together. This means switching on a stop that allows all the available strings for individual notes to be plucked at once.
One of the harpsichord’s main functions was to provide a steady, constant bedrock in order to maintain the structure of a piece of music, whilst allowing other instruments to embellish their parts. Often the harpsichord is provided with a bass line with numbers written below the notes. This is called figured bass, the numbers corresponding with different inversions of chords. How this bass line is manipulated and how decorative the player chooses to be will depend on the style of the piece. However, it should not be forgotten that the harpsichord is also a very capable solo instrument. In Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 the harpsichord ‘hijacks’ (as one scholar put it) the piece to take centre stage in a complex, almost cadenza-like, unaccompanied sequence. This interjection completely unbalances the structure of the movement and no other instrument is allowed such a grand indulgence. This was a great moment of assertion for the instrument and Bach went on to lavish the harpsichord with a generous selection of fine music, notably his harpsichord concerti BWV 1052-1065.
Suggested listening – Bach Brandenburg No. 5. (Brandenburg Concertos, box set, released 1 Sep 2003, Virgin Classics) Feast your eyes on this fine recording, especially the first movement where the spotlight is on the harpsichord, playing so fast that you can almost hear the sparks flying.
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Pictured: The harpsichord of our Co-Principal Keyboard player, Steven Devine. A copy (by Colin Booth) of a German harpsichord made in 1710 by Fleischer.