Sir Thomas Beecham, the great conductor and impresario of the first half of the 20th century, famously referred to the sound of the harpsichord as ‘two skeletons copulating on a tin roof in a thunderstorm’. It took a long time, however, for the harpsichord to reach the stage of development where it could be said to merit such an accolade.
In the ancient world, the making of musical sounds by the plucking or hitting of strings of different lengths stretched over a wooden frame led to the invention of numerous instruments. The plucking family includes the lyre, zither and harp. The hitting family consisted of the dulcimer (or cymbalo) where the strings are struck by two hammers held in the hands. The family of instruments that we now refer to as ‘strings’ developed very differently, using a bow to draw a sustained sound out of the strings.
Once the late medieval craze for mechanisation took hold, the ‘pluckers’ and the ‘hitters’ diversified alarmingly. The pluckers include the spinet, the virginal and the harpsichord, whose name is derived from Latin arpicorda, literally ‘harp string’. The hitters are represented by the clavichord, and much later the piano(forte) that we know today. The reference to dynamic range in the names of these latter two instruments in part accounts for why the harpsichord has been referred to with such dismissive scorn in recent times. The mechanics of plucking a string by means of a key makes it nigh on impossible to achieve any expressive control over volume.
The earliest known reference to a harpsichord dates from 1397. The earliest iconographic representation of something like a harpsichord is a carving on an altarpiece of 1425 in Minden, Germany. It shows two curly-headed angels one of whom is playing a natty little keyboard with a harpsichord shaped body, although there is no clue as to the mechanism by which the keys operated the strings.
The earliest representations and makers’ descriptions of the harpsichord proper are from the 15th century and show the trapezoidal shape with which we are familiar. The early instruments had a variety of extremely complicated mechanical designs to effect the sound production. Gradually the plucking mechanism became increasingly ingenious, adding ‘jacks’ to hold the plectrum and force it past the string when the key was depressed. This, and the fact that every key had two strings tuned to the same note associated with it, enabled the player to display very subtle degrees of legato and staccato. But any apparent change in dynamics had to be achieved by phrasing and thickness of chords. Later, one or more extra manual (layer of keyboard(s)) could be added to increase the flexibility still further. Both single and double manual harpsichords were used in the 18th century, but the lack of volume control continued to be a problem.
Throughout the late medieval, renaissance and baroque periods, the harpsichord was widely used across Europe to accompany singers and other instruments. Its role as ‘continuo’, to provide the harmonic structure of the music, was crucial to the writers of baroque and early classical chamber music, concerti, operas and oratorios. As a solo instrument its main champions were François Couperin, Domenico Scarlatti and of course J.S. Bach, whose Well-Tempered Clavier and Goldberg Variations are widely played today.
By 1800 harpsichord design had reached its zenith, with the sound of the magnificent and powerful English instruments being likened by some to that of a brass band. Some musical critics of the time felt that the harpsichord was drawing too much attention to itself to the detriment of the instruments and voices it was supposed to be accompanying. The quiet unassuming clavichord had long since evolved to produce the fortepiano (invented about 1700) and thence the piano, an instrument which allowed far greater expressive control of volume and sustaining capacity than the harpsichord. In the face of rivalry from the piano, the harpsichord fell out of favour with remarkable speed. It was hardly used at all during the 19th century and many instruments were destroyed as worthless.
The great revival came at the turn of the 20th century. For the first half of the century early authenticists such as Arnold Dolmetsch in England vied for the soul of the harpsichord with modernists such as Pleyel in France. But the later 20th century saw a surge in interest in original instruments and authentic reconstruction of early music performance using them. Makers began to emerge who produced ‘original’ instruments using historical technology. It was no doubt an ‘authentic’ harpsichord sound that triggered Beecham’s uncomplimentary reaction. But in the hands of a master like Philip Scriven, we are sure you will agree that the harpsichord is the ideal proponent of baroque music such as that on tonight’s programme. Beecham’s skeletons are at the very least clad in silk brocade and the roof is splendidly palatial.