Technical Library

RESOURCES I: What sort of harpsichord is that?

Entire Contents Copyright © 2011 CBH
Next 1K gif

What sort of harpsichord is that?
All harpsichords are not the same. It can be confusing for newbies, but there are two main types of harpsichords encountered today.

When the instrument was rediscovered in the early twentieth-century, harpsichords began to be built in piano factories, using piano technology and readily available materials. It wasn’t until after the middle of the last century that Boston makers like Frank Hubbard and William Dowd, or the Germans Martin Skowroneck or Rainer Schütze, became more interested in basing their output on the surviving historic instruments. The course of modern harpsichord development changed. This swing—that eventually saw most harpsichords being made today as they were in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—was the central theme of Wolfgang Zuckermann’s 1969 book The Modern Harpsichord. The story behind the book, and the jacks that Wolfgang collected from makers all over the world, can be found on our Wolfgang’s Jacks page.

The factory-made Revival or Twentieth-century harpsichord continued to be built through the 1990s. As Germany was the centre of this stream of modern harpsichord development, it is entirely appropriate that a specific section of Berlin’s Musikinstrumenten-Museum is devoted to that type. Although not produced in the numbers it was in the 1960s, the Neupert company still makes their large “Bach” model today, along with other modern harpsichords named after famous composers or even the believed inventor of the piano. Neupert began building more historic harpsichords from the early 1980s, and such instruments eventually became the majority of their output. Their colleagues like Sassmann, Sperrhake and Wittmayer are no longer in business. Performance practice relates to all periods and traditions of music, and instruments like the “Bach” are useful tools for those musicians interested in modern compositions specifically written for that type of harpsichord.

The musical and hence monetary value of revival harpsichords has been seriously reduced, somewhat sadly for their owners who may have enjoyed their instruments for many years, and continue to do so. The largest of these complicated keyboard instruments were expensive when new, but now are usually only worth a fraction of what their replacement cost would be. They are difficult to maintain, and their sound and touch are now not thought to be conducive to interpreting early music. Having said that, there are a few players who continue to specialize in this type of harpsichord, eschewing the historic models.

For music of the Baroque and earlier times, the Historic-type harpsichord—firmly based on historic principles and materials of construction—has become the norm. This didn’t happen overnight. The last twenty or thirty years has been a time of great but gradual change, and all makers have made progress to more closely emulate the characteristics admired in harpsichords of the past. There can be considerable variation in the resultant musical effectiveness of harpsichords and each maker’s output obviously reflects their own philosophies and skill development. A fine historic harpsichord has an inviting touch and a richer, more resonant and powerful sound than its revival counterpart.

The following table using two representative instruments summarizes the main differences between these two schools of harpsichord making and will help you identify which sort of instrument you encounter. Generally, if an instrument has at least half a dozen characteristics of the revival harpsichord, that is the type it is most likely to be. Beware, though, because a good many historic-looking instruments may not be quite so inside!

Typical revival factory-made harpsichord, Neupert Cristofori model 48K jpeg
Neupert “Cristofori” model, Cairo Opera House
Historic-type harpsichord, Ruckers Double model by Carey Beebe, Sydney 2003 46K jpeg
Ruckers Double, CAREY BEEBE • MMIII
Solid & functional, wide belly & curved tail resulting in bulky, piano-like appearance. APPEARANCE Elegantly proportioned, thin-waisted, pointed tail.
Mass-produced factory instruments, often with obvious serial number & branding on wrestplank and/or soundboard. PRODUCTION Individually made, discrete & low production serial number (if any) used.
Veneered—or if painted, invariably sprayed, with gold-painted highlights. EXTERIOR Solid wood or hand painted, often with historic decoration, real gold leaf.
Bevelled cheeks, thick sides, heavy, sometimes with metal frame either visible or inside. CASE CONSTRUCTION Square cheeks, thin sides, light, never with metal frame.
Massive & rigid. INTERNAL BRACING Relatively light, sufficient for string tension.
Laminated rim (up to 27 layers), plywood or chipboard panels. MATERIALS Solid wood throughout including lid & bottom.
124kg (“Cristofori” model) to 170kg (larger “Bach” model) WEIGHT c65kg without stand.
Three legs (often fitted with castors) & pedal lyre screw to instrument bottom. LEGS Some simple instruments with screw-in legs, never with castors, or trestle or table stand.
Bulky, attached to nameboard with pins or slid into frame on spine & cheek. MUSIC DESK Slender, resting on instrument or easily removable.
Thick, usually attached to case like piano & fitting into cup on lid. LID STICK Slender, normally loose & fitting into simple slot in lid.
Angled & usually hinged to, or else integral with lid flap, often fitted with lock. FALLBOARD Often absent, rarely attached to either lid or instrument, lock rare.
Absent: Case bracing & back of soundboard usually visible from underneath instrument. BOTTOM Solid wood, always encloses the case, most two-part with grain running under string length & crosswise under keys.
Thick, often laminated, deep in case, massive ribs, rarely decorated beyond a cast rose, high gloss polished. SOUNDBOARD Thin, solid, closer to top of case, fine ribbing, natural wood often hand decorated.
Wide keyend blocks. KEYWELL Narrow keyend blocks.
Piano-dimensioned, heavy keys, felt-bushed, deep keydip. KEYBOARDS Smaller heads, shorter & lighter keys, never bushed, shallow keydip, often narrower octave span.
Rare, normally only A440. TRANSPOSITION At least A415/A440 usual, except on very strict copies.
Commonly 54 notes: C–f''', otherwise 61 or 63. COMPASS Varies depending on model, commonly 56-notes: GG–d''', almost never 54 notes: C–f'''.
Lower: 16⁠´, 8⁠´, buff to 16⁠´; Upper: 8⁠´, 4⁠´, buff to 8⁠´. DISPOSITION Lower: 8⁠´, 4⁠´, buff to 8⁠´; Upper: 8⁠´.
Coupling by pedal. COUPLING Shove coupler common, or dogleg jacks depending on tradition or maker preference.
Complicated design, often metal or heavy plastic, with several screw adjustments. JACKS Light, simple, wooden, often tapered, no screws.
Large, block-like, often attached to jack with screwed metal bracket, obscuring top of quill. DAMPERS Single cloth layer simply wedged in jack damper slot, clear of quill.
Metal, operated by pedal mechanism. REGISTERS Milled wood, piercing cheek or operated by levers on wrestplank or in keywell, no pedals.
Often with 16⁠´ stop, usually piggybacked on 8⁠´ bridge. CHOIRS 16⁠´ stop very rare, when occurring normally on its own soundboard area.
Often leather. PLECTRA Delrin, celcon or even real quill.
Laminated, top often stepped. WRESTPLANK Solid wood, top flat and usually veneered to match soundboard.
Complicated string routing with large instruments, tuning pins spread in middle because of gap spacer. LAYOUT Evenly-spaced tuning pin layout throughout entire compass.
Threaded “zither pins”, square headed, short, stringing holes, set low in wrestplank. TUNING PINS Unthreaded tapered pins with rectangular heads, sometimes without stringing holes, tall.
Bulky & squat section, often inset with thin brass rod where strings contact, or graphited. BRIDGES & NUTS Slender, never inset with wire rod or graphited.
Hitchpins often inserted through hardwood strip glued on top of soundboard before reaching hitchpinrail underneath. 4⁠´ HITCHPINRAIL Hitchpins inserted through soundboard into hitchpinrail.
Large diameter hitchpins, bridge & nut pins. PINNING Small diameter.
Choirs often radically backpinned for whole compass. BACKPINNING Gently-angled backpinning up to alto region normal.
Yellow brass, Phosphor bronze or overspun strings in bass, hard steel wire from tenor up. STRINGS Red & yellow brass, soft iron wire in treble.
Distorted, with bass strings strongly foreshortened in most instruments & treble strings too long. SCALING Correctly proportioned with bass foreshortening.
Felt often woven between string tails like on piano, felt washers around hitchpins. LISTING No listing or hitchpin felt washers.
Thick felt or Styrofoam pads, sometimes attached to batten by screwed metal brackets, worked by pedals or stoplever. BUFF STOP Thin felt or leather, batten worked by hand or stoplever.

Resources index:

CBH Icon 1K gif Technical Library overview
CBH Icon 1K gif Harpsichords Australia Home Page