When was the Harpsichord Invented – The History of Harpsichord

Someday we may have as many followers as harpsichord is a wise saying. Because it was from the harpsichord, pianos create lovely music for the world now. Harpsichord being the ancestor for piano made in 1709, dates back to 1397. It is one of the earliest stringed keyboard instruments.  Though harpsichord instruments were huge and elaborate at that time, it was the keyed version of the polychord emerging in the 13th century. But it resembles more of the small, angular grand piano with a reverse keyboard. Even after more than six hundred years of its known existence and of its complexities, it is still manufactured by specialty instrument makers.

Harpsichord is also known as clavicembalum or as clavicytherium did not require invention from scratch.  The organ that was invented in the 3rd BCE is the base for harpsichord.  From the organ in  3 BCE to  Padua writing of one Hermann Poll inventing clavicembalum in 1397, it is now the digital pianos for music worldwide for centuries. But records confirm the first harpsichord resembled more of the guitar rather than that of piano or it’s base the organ.

Evolution of harpsichord for centuries:

During the 14th century, polychords were replaced by psaltery for extensive use.  Like the harpsichord, it also had metal strings to control the tension with tuning pins. They transmitted the vibrations through a bridge to the soundboard for making them audible.  Now for the psaltery to become harpsichords, it was only necessary to find a way to pluck the metal strings mechanically using a keyboard. Since only during this time many advances were made in the clockwork and other types of machinery, the time was ripe for the making of harpsichord instrument.

Also read: Benefits of Learning and Playing Piano

Harpsichord formation in 1300:

Harpsichord, known with its Latin name as clavycytherium during the 1300s, was formed by adding a keyboard to the psaltery at right angles to the soundboard. It was similar to the portative organs that were handheld at that time.  It was also referred to as the exaquir in 1387 as an instrument with sounds obtained by strings.  There is a wood carving to this effect in Kafermarkt in Austria.

Harpsichord 1400 Evolution:

Harpsichord seemed to evolve during the 1400s in the Flanders. It is the region now divided between Belgium, France, and the Netherlands.  The earlier harpsichords were similar to the later Fleming instruments.  But they were small and without jack rail during the 1400s.  The first of it was found in a German altar craving in 1425. The second was in 1440 in England on the stained glass window that was attributed to John Prudd of the Beauchamp Chapel in St. Mary’s Chruch at Warwick England.  It shows the resemblance of the earlier harpsichord resembling the later Fleming instruments.  In Burgundy, drawings of Henri Arnaut show their complex plucking mechanisms.

Read more: Evolution of Keys in a Piano – Brief History

Harpsichord evolution during 1500:

From the Flanders in 1400, it was the Italians who took over the harpsichord during the 1500s. The Italians made the instrument case light, and also internal knees supported the stress of the strings.  And during the 1500s, all harpsichords appeared to be plucked by simple jacks. They were sliding in a guide between the jack rail and the keyboard.  Also, these keyboards range doubled from that of their earlier instruments in the Flanders in the 1400s. It is during this period that harpsichords evolved a lot due to the Italian intervention.

Even now, nearly 40 Italian harpsichord instruments are intact from the 1500s.  During this era, the Italians kept light short strings and continued to evolve the devices as per their need and wishes.  But most of the Italian instruments’ references were from the north of the Alps.   During the early 1500s, the harpsichords were in the small form with single strings that are parallel to the keyboard and are known as the Spinetta. Only one of these spinetta was attributed to Queen Elizabeth I. Sebastian Virdung in his work in 1511 described these instruments as Virginia, Clavicimbalum, and Claviciterium. They had pitch ranges from 38, 40, and 38 keys, respectively. Frank Hubbard called these three as Ottaviani, meaning that these instruments sound an octave above the average pitch and also one way of building small devices as pitch range link to string length.

Spinetta having a pentagonal outline with both the string ends rest on the soundboard, was also made in Flanders. The Caterina de Hemessen painting in 1548 shows these Spinetta. From 1560, this small spinetta was made more significant by the Flemish with a rectangular outline. And the most populist of them is called a muselaar, and it made a sound like a lute.  But the others sounded like Italian instruments with a broader range and can be seen in the Jan Ver Meer painting in 1660.

While most of the early Italian harpsichords were single octave string set, only a few had the doubled first strings.  The instrument that had both bridge and nut on the soundboard was known as the father of the music.  It was seen in Domenic of Pesaro in 1533. It was the earliest surviving unmodified harpsichord. During this period, the harpsichords were variable in pitch and tended to cluster around two scales.  Also, the harpsichords were gradually increasing in size.

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Harpsichord evolution in 1600:

Wing-shaped spinet started to replace the Fleming virginal, and from the 1640s first strings began to play together.  During this period, the range increased to four octaves and then expanded to five octaves.  In the 1677 harpsichord instrument made by Fabry of Bologna, the range extended by splitting the lowest two sharp keys and by squeezing the new sets of strings.

Harpsichord evolution in 1700:

During this period saw the increase in the string numbers and also of prominent instruments having three choirs for every note.  It enables the player to easily select the choir in a variety of combinations to give different sound effects.

Read here: Types & Sizes of Pianos Explained

Harpsichord evolution in 1800:

It is during this period that the use of harpsichord ceased to exist. Mush and bombast replaced the precision and clarity of the baroque.

But harpsichords though primitive to pianos, were the ones that were extremely and extensively useful in designing today’s pianos. Harpsichords will always be remembered as the ancestors of the pianos. Though they cease for use extensively, still specialist manufacturers make harpsichords for their unique style and sound.

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