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Title: Mami Kurumada, Cembalo—Cinquieme Concert aus Pieces de Clavecine en Concerts, by J. Ph. Rameau; Mami Kurumada, harpsichord. Label: . Format: CD. Catalogue#: . Track: 11.

Title: 20th Century Harpsichord Music, Vol. II—“Rondeau: La Dame du Seigneur” from Musique de clavecin, Op. 61, by Arnold Rosner; Barbara Harbach, harpsichord. Label: Gasparo. Format: CD. Catalogue#: GSCD-266. Track: 1.

Contextual Associations

The harpsichord is an indirectly plucked box-zither chordophone operated from a keyboard. Of European origin, it was an important solo and ensemble instrument from the 16th century until nearly the end of the 18th century. A substantial solo literature was created for the harpsichord, and beginning in the 17th century it came to be used both as a concerto instrument and as a basso continuo instrument. In this latter role, the harpsichord came to be widely utilized in chamber music, opera orchestras, and symphony orchestras as all three of these genres evolved during the Baroque Era and well into the Classic Era. It was gradually replaced by the fortepiano as the primary keyboard chordophone during the second half of the 18th century. A creation of pre-Industrial Revolution times, each harpsichord required many hours of labor by skilled craftsmen to build and could be produced in only fairly modest numbers. Larger and often ornately decorated instruments would have been luxury items affordable only to the upper classes of society or to institutions such as churches, opera companies, concert organizations, and universities. Regional differences in the design of the harpsichord developed early on in its history, and therefore instruments are typically labeled by their century of manufacture and their region of origin (e.g., 17th century Flemish, or 18th century French). Three instruments are pictured and described on this page: the historically-oriented double-manual harpsichord pictured first was built in 1970 by William Dowd of Cambridge, MA, modeled on mid-to-late 18th-century instruments from the Parisian workshop of the Blanchet/Taskin family; the second instrument, also historically oriented, is a single-manual harpsichord based on 17th-century Flemish harpsichords and built in 1979 by Edward Kottick of Iowa City, IA; and the third harpsichord is a one-manual hybrid instrument, influenced both by historical harpsichords and by fortepiano and piano construction, by Rutkowski & Robinette of New York, built in 1962. All three instruments can be viewed as products of a harpsichord revival that began in the late 19th century, more precisely of a second phase of that revival, which began after WWII. In this second phase many American scholar-builders have built instruments by hand, following Baroque prototypes and procedures, rather than mass-producing hybrids such as those of the first-phase makers. Their instruments are purchased by university music departments and conservatories and by a number of highly trained performers who find employment with professional Early Music groups, universities, and as freelance recitalists and recording artists. Some dedicated amateurs will purchase a harpsichord for their personal entertainment at home.


[This description focuses primarily on the first-pictured instrument; some basic information about the other two harpsichords will be found at the end of the paragraph.] The instrument’s string carrier is a wing-shaped wood frame that supports a thinly-shaven soundboard of cedar. This frame fits within and is attached to a similarly shaped box casing, which functions as a resonator space, with a hinged top that can be propped open with a stick. Each of the instrument’s 183 brass and steel wire strings of varying lengths and thicknesses is strung across the length of the frame in one of two tiers, the upper one with 122 strings constituting two interspersed ‘choirs’ of strings both at what is referred to as ‘8-foot’ voicing, the lower tier with a single choir of 61 strings at ‘4-foot’ voicing (this voicing terminology comes from the world of pipe organs). Only a half-inch separates these two tiers of strings. The first detail image captures most of the essential sound-producing components of the harpsichord, which will be identified and explained from the bottom up. At the bottom of the image is seen the instrument’s two 61-key manuals, which will be referred to as its lower and upper manuals respectively. Each key is one end of a long lever at the other end of which is situated one or two vertical jacks each with a single plectrum. Just inside the resonator frame each string is coiled around a metal tuning pin that is embedded in a block of wood (the tuning block). First we see the 122 tuning pins for the two 8-foot choirs. These strings pass over a shared ridge functioning as a nut, which articulates one end of each string’s vibrational length. Located on the far side of the ridge nut is a sliding row of damper pads (called a ‘buff stop’) that, when engaged, mutes the strings in one of the 8-foot choirs. Next is a second row of tuning pins for the 61 stings in the 4-foot choir; these strings then pass over a shared ridge nut that is about a half-inch shorter than the 8-foot ridge nut. The three choirs of strings now pass between three horizontal rows of 61 jacks each (see second detail image). The basic plucking mechanism of a harpsichord is simple but ingenious. The lever-keys extend far into the works, balancing on a fulcrum. Corresponding rows of vertical strips of wood (‘jacks’) with protruding felt dampers and quill or leather plectra are slid into plucking position. Depressing the front end of each key raises the back end, sending the jack upward with its damper and plectrum. With the string now free to vibrate, the plectrum plucks the string on the upward trip but brushes away as the jack turns downward so that the string is not plucked twice. The returning jack damper stops string vibrations when the key is released. On this instrument the first row of jacks is operated by the upper-manual keys and each jack has a plectrum on its right side used to pluck the strings of one of the 8-foot choirs; the second row of jacks, operated by the 61 keys in the lower manual, have plectrums on their left side for plucking the 4-foot choir strings; and the third row of jacks, also operated by the keys in the lower manual, likewise have left-mounted plectra used to pluck the other 8-foot choir of strings. After passing by the jacks, the 4-foot strings pass over a low pressure bridge on the face of the instrument’s soundboard. Contact with this bridge marks the other end of each 4-foot string’s vibrational length. Each string in this choir is then looped around a hitch pin embedded in the soundboard. Next is the second, higher, pressure bridge with which all the strings in the two 8-foot choirs make contact. String vibrations are transmitted through these two pressure bridges to the soundboard and the air contained in the resonating box, which also vibrates and amplifies the sound. The far end of the 8-foot choir strings are then looped around hitch pins nailed into the string carrier frame, which in turn is attached to the inner wall of the casing.  [The Kottick Flemish-inspired single-manual (with 56 keys) instrument (see third detail image) has two choirs of 8-foot strings interspersed with one another in a single plane. It has two rows of jacks, one for each choir, and a buff stop for muting the strings of one of the choirs (see fourth detail image).] [The one-manual (with 61 keys) Rutkowski & Robinette harpsichord, like the Kottick one, has two 8-foot choirs of strings interspersed with one another in a single plane, two rows of jacks, and includes a buff stop (see fifth detail image). Some metal framing and other metal parts are incorporated, and its stop controls are activated by pedals (see sixth detail image; the left pedal brings the jacks for one choir in and out of action, the middle pedal brings the second row of jacks in and out of action, and the third pedal operates the buff stop.]

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The player of the harpsichord sits on a bench facing the instrument’s keyboards and uses all the fingers of both hands to depress the keys individually, sequentially, or in combination. Mechanically, changes in finger pressure cannot appreciably control the intensity of sound on a harpsichord (as can be done on the clavichord and various pianos), but this is no limitation for the many styles of music at which the harpsichord excels. In response to the plucking mechanics, a player uses light, swift finger action to elicit the instrument's best tone. Registrations (string choirs chosen) are varied, which provides a broad palette of tone colors as well as variation in pitch and dynamic levels. Each choir of strings may be played independently or in combinations by shifting the sets of jacks into plucking position with ‘register’ or ‘stop’ controls operated by the hands [or, for the Rutkowski & Robinette, the feet]. The two 8-foot choirs are recognizably different in character even though they are interspersed with one another in a single horizontal plane (the upper tier) and use the same kind of strings. The upper manual 8-foot strings are plucked closer to the ends of their sounding lengths than are the lower manual 8-foot strings, producing a lighter, slightly nasal tone color rich in upper partials. The lower manual 8-foot strings are plucked slightly further into their sounding lengths, which tends to exclude higher partials, producing a rounder, less-colored tone. This lower or ‘back’ 8-foot stop, much like an 8-foot flute stop on the organ, is the expressive essence of the instrument, the basic solo stop. In addition, the lower manual 8-foot strings also have a sliding row of damper pads (the buff stop) that shorten their reverberations (giving the impression of a large lute). A manual ‘coupler’ can also unite the upper 8-foot strings with whatever is chosen on the lower manual. Diverse note lengths and judicious detachment are used to frame expressive motifs and project articulation patterns, which creates aural impressions similar to dynamic shadings. Setting off important notes with preceding snatches of silence lends them emphasis akin to stress accentuation on the piano. All of these expressive devices preceded the advent of the fortepiano, on whose mechanics dynamic shading and stress accentuation became expressive counterparts of these earlier procedures. The keyboard is arranged in a chromatic configuration, which repeats with each successive octave, with the black keys producing the diatonic C Major scale and the white keys dividing all of the whole tones in that scale into half steps [the key colors are the same on the third harpsichord, but reversed on the second instrument]. Each manual on the Dowd instrument has a 5-octave compass and is fully chromatic (68 discrete notes). The range of the 8-foot choirs is from F1 - F6; the 4-foot choir from F2 - F7. [The second-pictured harpsichord has 112 strings in two 8-foot choirs each with 56 chromatic notes over a 4.5-octave range from G1 - D6; the third instrument has 122 strings in two 8-foot choirs each with 61 chromatic notes over a 5-octave range from F1 - F6.] Most solo music for the harpsichord has been edited and notated on the grand staff at pitch, even though historically some of the earlier repertoire for the harpsichord might have been notated and published in a keyboard tablature, of which there were many regional variants. Many harpsichordists are also trained in the art of realizing a figured bass part consisting only of a bass line and a numerical shorthand from which the player must create harmonies. The first audio example was composed in France at about the time when the instrument used by Dowd as his model was in favor. The second excerpt is from a 20th-century harpsichord work, appropriate for a hybrid harpsichord such as the Rutkowski & Robinette instrument.


Descendants of the psaltery, keyboard instruments with plucked strings can be wing-shaped (harpsichord), rectangular or polygonal (virginal), or other shapes (triangular spinet, bentside spinet). The earliest mention of the harpsichord is found in a 1397 CE document, and the oldest representation of the instrument is found on a carving in a German church that dates to 1425. The oldest surviving instruments come from 16th-century Italy, and from elsewhere in Europe the 17th century. As mentioned earlier, the tradition of harpsichord design and manufacture, while likely beginning in Italy, took on its own character wherever it spread. Harpsichords were initially single-manual instruments with one or two choirs of strings, the double manual design being introduced only early in the 17th century (possibly in France) and becoming a common design feature by the end of the 17th century. Interest amongst 18th century musicians and builders in creating a harpsichord capable of producing subtle shadings and a greater range of dynamics in response to the performer’s touch led to the development of the fortepiano, which by the end of the 18th century had largely, although not entirely, replaced the harpsichord. 

Bibliographic Citations

Hubbard, Frank. 1986. “Harpsichord,” in The New Harvard Dictionary of Music. Don Randel, ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, pp. 372-374.

Ripin, Edwin M., et. al. “Harpsichord,” in Grove Music Online. Accessed February 25 2015: http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/12420#S12420


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Region: Southern Europe

Nation: Italy

Formation: European

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

314.122-8 chordophone--true board zither (the plane of the strings is parallel with that of the string bearer): with resonator box (box zither); the resonator is made from slats; with keyboard

Design and Playing Features

Category: chordophone

String carrier design: zither - board

Resonator design, chordophone: box with wood soundboard

String courses: single, double at unison, double at octave, triple at octave

Vibrational length: pressure bridge to ridge-nut

String tension control: friction pin

Method of sounding: plucking (indirect)

Pitches per string course: one


92.1 in. length (first instrument) 37.8 in. width (first instrument) 82 in. length (second instrument) 33 in. width (second instrument) 89 in. length (third instrument) 38.5 in. width (third instrument)

Primary Materials

string - wire
quill - bird feather


William Dowd, Cambridge MA


French double manual #206

Entry Author

Elizabeth Hays, Roger Vetter