Introduction to the harpsichord
The harpsichord, or cembalo in Italian, predates the piano by centuries. Though it superficially resembles the piano, it's actually a very different instrument, requiring a different playing approach and technique. The greatest difference is that the harpsichord produces sound by plucking the string and not striking the string with a hammer. Its action is simplicity itself: press the key, and a thin wooden jack moves up vertically; a small plectra on the jack pushes past the string and sets it in vibration. Upon release, the jack returns via gravity, the plectra slips past the string by means of a simple escapement lever, and a thin damper of felt or leather kills the sound (see GALLERY below).
From the standpoint of the modern pianist, playing the harpsichord can be a defamiliarizing experience. The overwhelming (and persistently ignorant) opinion of many pianists who are not acquainted with the harpsichord is that all pianists can play the harpsichord because they both have keyboards. By that logic, all pianists are also automatically organists and accordionists. Because it is largely devoid of touch-responsive dynamics, playing the harpsichord requires not arm weight or leverage, but utmost finger clarity and a purely agogic sense of phrasing. The keys on a harpsichord are also very light, and much less forgiving of technical inaccuracies than on the piano. The seasoned pianist's very first run on a harpsichord is often riddled with slips and uneveness, and invariably monotonous sounding.
A BRIEF HISTORY
Just as the terms "piano(forte)" and "fortepiano" refer, in the current context, to instruments from different eras (with the latter designating anything from the earliest Cristofori models to the Steins and Walters of Mozart's day, to even some late 19th Century models), so did different eras exist in the life of the harpsichord. Historically speaking, harpsichords are either "originals", "revivals", or "historical copies". The originals are, of course, the models from the great builders of centuries ago: the early and late Flemish instruments (Ruckers, Dulcken, etc.), the 18th Century French models (Blanchet, Taskin), and other builders from Germany, Italy, and England.
With the invention and rise of popularity of the piano starting from the early part of the 18th Century, the harpsichord saw a significant decline until much later, in the late Romantic Era, when piano makers like Pleyel began building what we now call revival instruments. These harpsichords were nothing like the originals: the revivalists gave their new harpsichords cast iron frames like the ones found in modern pianos, equipped them with thicker strings, and provided them with multiple stops operated by pedals instead of levers mounted above the name batten (see MANUALS, CHOIRS, AND STOPS below). Revival instruments held their tuning better, but lacked the timbral clarity and personality of the original instruments. Even so, they were popularized by many keyboard performers in the 20th Century--from Wanda Landowska to Glenn Gould, who recorded on such a harpsichord during a brief hiatus from the piano. Today, these revival instruments are almost universally eschewed in favour of historical copies.
Makers today follow the trend established a century ago by Arnold Dolmetsch, who is perhaps the single most important pioneer of our current concept of historical/early music resurrection. Harpsichords built today are based either directly or closely upon the originals, and to travel to museums and private collections to do research on an original Ruckers or Taskin is required fare for a genuine harpsichord maker. There are a few places where modern technology lends a hand: most often, for instance, the plectra, originally made of bird quill, are today made of a plastic called Delrin--although some professional still prefer quill jacks. But the real goal is to reproduce the sound that would have resonated from harpsichords centuries ago.
MANUALS, CHOIRS, AND STOPS
Harpsichords can either come in single or double manual form, referring to the number of keyboards. Whereas the early Flemish double manual harpsichords had the two keyboards staggered in pitch in order to facilitate transposition, later models almost always were either built (rebuilt) to have the two keyboards aligned. The player also has the choice of "coupling" the keyboards, which means either playing them separately, or controlling both keyboards simultaneously from the bottom manual.
When a key is depressed on the harpsichord, one or more jacks are activated. This is because, depending on the build and complexity of the instrument in question, pressing a key can either pluck one, two, three, or more strings. Each set of strings, known as a "choir", has a pitch designation. The stardard is the 8-foot string (following an organ nomenclature): press middle C and hear middle C. All harpsichords have at least one 8-foot choir; double manuals, naturally, have two (known as 8' 8' disposition). Many instruments will also have a 4-foot choir: press middle C, and hear the C above. When using the 4-foot in combination with one or more 8-foot choirs, you get a bigger, fuller sound (ie. 8' 8' 4').
Stops are another feature the harpsichord shares with the pipe organ. Typically, stops simply control which choirs are to be heard. By switching a 4-foot stop lever, for instance, you either allow the choir to sound to prevent it from doing so. Many instruments will also feature a "buff rail" or "buff stop", which presses a set of felts or soft leather mutes to the strings and creates a lute-like sound. For this reason, the buff stop is often incorrectly referred to as the "lute stop"; in reality, the lute stop is actually an entirely different row of jacks that produce a different timbre by using one of the existing 8-foot stops. Custom harpsichords can have any combination of these choirs and stops and more.
Early music revival has come and gone in waves. The earlist such movement is associated with Felix Mendelssohn during the first part of the 19th Century. In the 20th Century, Arnold Dolmetsch was the name with which Early music revival was most closely associated. Today, Early music and harpsichord music in particular is again enjoying a new surge of interest, due largely to the increasing number of groups and solo performers who devote their careers to historically-informed performance. Get acquainted with this modern antiquity--explore the recorded repertoire of renowned harpsichordists such as Gustav Leonhardt, Richard Egarr, Pierre Hantaï, and many others. For further reading, the books A History of the Harpsichord and The Harpsichord Owner's Guide, both written by musicologist and harpsichord builder Edward L. Kottick, are an invaluable resource.
If you're looking for your own instrument, Craig C. Tomlinson of Vancouver comes highly recommended. He builds historically-based Flemish, French, and German harpsichords, as well as virginals, clavichords, and Viennese fortepianos. Click here for more information.
LEFT Front view of a double-manual French-style harpsichord, showing both keyboards (ebony naturals and bone sharps), name batten, buff rail stop, tuning pins, and jacks.
ABOVE Close up of the tuning pins and the jacks, which are the vertical pieces of wood. The black bar over top is the jack rail, which gives the jacks a consistent stop when the keys are depressed.
ABOVE LEFT The jack rail has been removed, exposing the three sets of jacks controlling the three string choirs (8' 8' 4'). One of the jacks has been lifted out of its guides for view.
ABOVE RIGHT Close up of the jack, showing the black Delrin plectrum mounted on a thin wooden escapement lever. This lever moves back when the jack comes back down, allowing the plectrum to slide past the string without being obstructed by it. The red felt dampens the sound upon contact.
BELOW Harpsichords, traditionally, were ornate instruments. Wealthy owners had them decorated lavishly, and one such decorated instrument was as much a status symbol as a a musical instrument. The instrument shown below is much less fancy, but still has a modest but striking soundboard rose--a staple of soundboard artwork.