A harpsichord is a musical instrument played by means of a keyboard which activates a row of levers that in turn trigger a mechanism that plucks one or more strings with a small plectrum.

The term denotes the whole family of similar plucked-keyboard instruments, including the smaller virginals, muselar, and spinet. The harpsichord was widely used in Renaissance and Baroque music. During the late 18th century, with the rise of the piano, it gradually disappeared from the musical scene. In the 20th century, it made a resurgence, being used in historically informed performances of older music, in new compositions, and in certain styles of popular music.

This harpsichord is the work of two celebrated makers: originally constructed by Andreas Ruckers in Antwerp (1646), it was later remodeled and expanded by Pascal Taskin in Paris (1780).


MDMB 418, detall de clavicèmbal, Christian Zell, Museu de la Música de Barcelona
Detail of the mechanism of the Harpsichord by Christian Zell, at Museu de la Música de Barcelona

Harpsichords vary in size and shape, but all have the same basic mechanism. The player depresses a key that rocks over a pivot in the middle of its length. The other end of the key lifts a jack (a long strip of wood) that holds a small plectrum (a wedge-shaped piece of quill, often made of plastic today), which plucks the string. When the player releases the key, the far end returns to its rest position, and the jack falls back; the plectrum, mounted on a tongue that can swivel backwards away from the string, passes the string without plucking it again. As the key reaches its rest position, a felt damper atop the jack stops the string's vibrations. These basic principles are explained in detail below.

Figure 1. Schematic view of a 2 × 8' single manual harpsichord
  • The keylever is a simple pivot, which rocks on a balance pin that passes through a hole drilled through the keylever.
  • The jack is a thin, rectangular piece of wood that sits upright on the end of the keylever. The jacks are held in place by the registers. These are two long strips of wood (the upper movable, the lower fixed), which run in the gap between pinblock and bellyrail. The registers have rectangular mortises (holes) through which the jacks pass as they can move up and down. The registers hold the jacks in the precise location needed to pluck the string.
    Jack diagram-EN
    Figure 2. Upper part of a jack
  • In the jack, a plectrum juts out almost horizontally (normally the plectrum is angled upwards a tiny amount) and passes just under the string. Historically, plectra were made of bird quill or leather; many modern harpsichords have plastic (delrin or celcon) plectra.
  • When the front of the key is pressed, the back of the key rises, the jack is lifted, and the plectrum plucks the string.
  • The vertical motion of the jack is then stopped by the jackrail (also called the upper rail), which is covered with soft felt to muffle the impact.
    Harpsichord jack action
    Figure 3: how the harpsichord action works
  • When the key is released, the jack falls back down under its own weight, and the plectrum passes back under the string. This is made possible by having the plectrum held in a tongue attached with a pivot and a spring to the body of the jack. The bottom surface of the plectrum is cut at a slant; thus when the descending plectrum touches the string from above, the angled lower surface provides enough force to push the tongue backward.[1]
  • When the jack arrives in fully lowered position, the felt damper touches the string, causing the note to cease.
Jack diagram-EN
Figure 2. Upper part of a jack
Harpsichord jack action
Figure 3: how the harpsichord action works

Strings, tuning, and soundboard

Resonance Chladni Soundboard Harpsichord Clavecin
Sound board of a harpsichord with Chladni patterns
035 Museu de la Música
Detail of the harpsichord by Karl Conrad Fleischer; Hamburg, 1720 in Museu de la Música de Barcelona. A decorative rose descends below the soundboard in which it is mounted; the soundboard itself is adorned with floral painting around the rose. The bridge is at lower right.

Each string is wound around a tuning pin, normally at the end of the string closer to the player. When rotated with a wrench or tuning hammer, the tuning pin adjusts the tension so that the string sounds the correct pitch. Tuning pins are held tightly in holes drilled in the pinblock or wrestplank, an oblong hardwood plank. Proceeding from the tuning pin, a string next passes over the nut, a sharp edge that is made of hardwood and is normally attached to the wrestplank. The section of the string beyond the nut forms its vibrating length, which is plucked and creates sound.

At the other end of its vibrating length, the string passes over the bridge, another sharp edge made of hardwood. As with the nut, the horizontal position of the string along the bridge is determined by a vertical metal pin inserted into the bridge, against which the string rests. The bridge itself rests on a soundboard, a thin panel of wood usually made of spruce, fir or—in some Italian harpsichords—cypress. The soundboard efficiently transduces the vibrations of the strings into vibrations in the air; without a soundboard, the strings would produce only a very feeble sound. A string is attached at its far end by a loop to a hitchpin that secures it to the case.

Multiple choirs of strings

While many harpsichords have one string per note, more elaborate harpsichords can have two or more strings for each note. When there are multiple strings for each note, these additional strings are called "choirs" of strings. This provides two advantages: the ability to vary volume and ability to vary tonal quality. Volume is increased when the mechanism of the instrument is set up by the player (see below) so that the press of a single key plucks more than one string. Tonal quality can be varied in two ways. First, different choirs of strings can be designed to have distinct tonal qualities, usually by having one set of strings plucked closer to the nut, which emphasizes the higher harmonics, and produces a "nasal" sound quality. The mechanism of the instrument, called "stops" (following the use of the term in pipe organs) permits the player to select one choir or the other. Second, having one key pluck two strings at once changes not just volume but also tonal quality; for instance, when two strings tuned to the same pitch are plucked simultaneously, the note is not just louder but also richer and more complex.

A particularly vivid effect is obtained when the strings plucked simultaneously are an octave apart. This is normally heard by the ear not as two pitches but as one: the sound of the higher string is blended with that of the lower one, and the ear hears the lower pitch, enriched in tonal quality by the additional strength in the upper harmonics of the note sounded by the higher string.

When describing a harpsichord it is customary to specify its choirs of strings, often called its disposition. Strings at eight foot pitch sound at the normal expected pitch, strings at four foot pitch sound an octave higher. Harpsichords occasionally include a sixteen-foot choir (one octave lower than eight-foot) or a two-foot choir (two octaves higher; quite rare). When there are multiple choirs of strings, the player is often able to control which choirs sound. This is usually done by having a set of jacks for each choir, and a mechanism for "turning off" each set, often by moving the upper register (through which the jacks slide) sideways a short distance, so that their plectra miss the strings. In simpler instruments this is done by manually moving the registers, but as the harpsichord evolved, builders invented levers, knee levers and pedal mechanisms to make it easier to change registration.

Harpsichords with more than one keyboard (this usually means two keyboards, stacked one on top of the other in a step-wise fashion, as with pipe organs)[2] provide flexibility in selecting which strings play, since each manual can be set to control the plucking of a different set of strings. In addition, such harpsichords often have a mechanism (the "coupler") that couples manuals together, so that a single manual plays both sets of strings. The most flexible system is the French "shove coupler", in which the lower manual slides forward and backward. In the backward position, "dogs" attached to the upper surface of the lower manual engage the lower surface of the upper manual's keys. Depending on choice of keyboard and coupler position, the player can select any of the sets of jacks labeled in figure 4 as A, or B and C, or all three.

Shove Coupler
Figure 4. French shove coupler. To the left: uncoupled keyboards. The depressed upper key lifts the jack A upwards. The depressed lower key lifts jacks B and C. To the right: The upper keyboard is coupled to the lower one by pulling the latter. The depressed upper key lifts the jack A upwards. The depressed lower key lifts jacks A, B and C.

The English "dogleg" jack system (also used in Baroque Flanders) does not require a coupler. The jacks labeled A in Figure 5 have a "dogleg" shape that permits either keyboard to play A. If the player wishes to play the upper 8' from the upper manual only and not from the lower manual, a stop handle disengages the jacks labeled A and engages instead an alternative row of jacks called "lute stop" (not shown in the Figure). A lute stop is used to imitate the gentle sound of a plucked lute.[3]

Dogleg shove coupler
Figure 5. Dogleg jack, English coupler system. When depressed, the upper key lifts the "dogleg" jack (jack A) upwards. The lower key lifts all three jacks A, B, and C.

The use of multiple manuals in a harpsichord was not originally provided for the flexibility in choosing which strings would sound, but rather for transposition of the instrument to play in different keys (see History of the harpsichord).

Johannes Vermeer - Lady Standing at a Virginal
Jan Vermeer's famous painting Lady Standing at a Virginal shows a characteristic practice of his time, with the instrument mounted on a table and the player standing.


The case holds in position all of the important structural members: pinblock, soundboard, hitchpins, keyboard, and the jack action. It usually includes a solid bottom, and also internal bracing to maintain its form without warping under the tension of the strings. Cases vary greatly in weight and sturdiness: Italian harpsichords are often of light construction; heavier construction is found in the later Flemish instruments and those derived from them.

A false inner–outer harpsichord from the Deutsches Museum in Munich. The false inner case begins to the right of the keyboard, and continues backward only far enough to provide a slot to support the jack rail.

The case also gives the harpsichord its external appearance and protects the instrument. A large harpsichord is, in a sense, a piece of furniture, as it stands alone on legs and may be styled in the manner of other furniture of its place and period. Early Italian instruments, on the other hand, were so light in construction that they were treated rather like a violin: kept for storage in a protective outer case, and played after taking it out of its case and placing it on a table.[4] Such tables were often quite high – until the late 18th century people usually played standing up.[4] Eventually, harpsichords came to be built with just a single case, though an intermediate stage also existed: the false inner–outer, which for purely aesthetic reasons was built to look as if the outer case contained an inner one, in the old style.[5] Even after harpsichords became self-encased objects, they often were supported by separate stands, and some modern harpsichords have separate legs for improved portability.

Many harpsichords have a lid that can be raised, a cover for the keyboard, and a stand for music.

Harpsichords have been decorated in a great many different ways: with plain buff paint (e.g. some Flemish instruments), with paper printed with patterns, with leather or velvet coverings, with chinoiserie, or occasionally with highly elaborate painted artwork.[6]



In modern usage, "harpsichord" can mean any member of the family of instruments. More often, though, it specifically denotes a grand-piano-shaped instrument with a roughly triangular case accommodating long bass strings at the left and short treble strings at the right. The characteristic profile of such a harpsichord is more elongated than a modern piano, with a sharper curve than the bentside.[7]


The virginal is a smaller and simpler rectangular form of the harpsichord having only one string per note; the strings run parallel to the keyboard, which is on the long side of the case.


A spinet is a harpsichord with the strings set at an angle (usually about 30 degrees) to the keyboard. The strings are too close together for the jacks to fit between them. Instead, the strings are arranged in pairs, and the jacks are in the larger gaps between the pairs. The two jacks in each gap face in opposite directions, and each plucks a string adjacent to the gap.

The English diarist Samuel Pepys mentions his "tryangle" several times. This was not the percussion instrument that we call triangle today; rather, it was a name for octave-pitched spinets, which were triangular in shape.


A clavicytherium is a harpsichord with the soundboard and strings mounted vertically facing the player, the same space-saving principle as an upright piano.[8] In a clavicytherium, the jacks move horizontally without the assistance of gravity, so that clavicytherium actions are more complex than those of other harpsichords.

DolmetschSpinet LateWinter
An ottavino built by Arnold Dolmetsch in 1923, and modeled after a 1698 instrument by Joannes Carcassi


Ottavini are small spinets or virginals at four-foot pitch. Harpsichords at octave pitch were more common in the early Renaissance, but lessened in popularity later on. However, the ottavino remained very popular as a domestic instrument in Italy until the 19th century. In the Low Countries, an ottavino was commonly paired with an 8' virginals, encased in a small cubby under the soundboard of the larger instrument. The ottavino could be removed and placed on top of the virginal, making, in effect, a double manual instrument. These are sometimes called 'mother-and-child'[9] or 'double' virginals.[10][11]


The archicembalo, built in the 16th century, had an unusual keyboard layout, designed to accommodate variant tuning systems demanded by compositional practice and theoretical experimentation. More common were instruments with split sharps, also designed to accommodate the tuning systems of the time.

The folding harpsichord was an instrument that could be folded up for travel.

Pedal Harpsichord: Occasionally, harpsichords were built which included another set or sets of strings underneath and operated by pedals which pluck the lowest keys of the harpsichord. Although there are no known extant pedal harpsichords from the 18th century or before, from Adlung (1758): the lower set of usually 8' strings "...is built like an ordinary harpsichord, but with an extent of two octaves only. The jacks are similar, but they will benefit from being arranged back to back, since the two [bass] octaves take as much space as four in an ordinary harpsichord[12] Prior to 1980 when Keith Hill introduced his design for a pedal harpsichord, most pedal harpsichords were built based on the designs of extant pedal pianos from the 19th century, in which the instrument is as wide as the pedalboard.[13] While these were mostly intended as practice instruments for organists, a few pieces are believed to have been written specifically for the pedal harpsichord. However, the set of pedals can augment the sound from any piece performed on the instrument, as demonstrated on several albums by E. Power Biggs.[14]

Compass and pitch range

On the whole, earlier harpsichords have smaller ranges than later ones, although there are many exceptions. The largest harpsichords have a range of just over five octaves, and the smallest have under four. Usually, the shortest keyboards were given extended range in the bass with a "short octave". The traditional pitch range for a 5-octave instrument is F1–F6 (FF–f‴).

Tuning pitch is often taken to be A4 = 415 Hz, roughly a semitone lower than the modern standard concert pitch of A4 = 440 Hz. An accepted exception is for French baroque repertoire, which is often performed with a = 392 Hz, approximately a semitone lower again. See Jean-Philippe Rameau's Treatise on Harmony (1722) [Dover Publications], Book One, chapter five, for insight into French baroque tuning; "Since most of these semitones are absolutely necessary in the tuning of organs and other similar instruments, the following chromatic system has been drawn up." Tuning an instrument nowadays usually starts with setting an A; historically it would commence from a C or an F.

Some modern instruments are built with keyboards that can shift sideways, allowing the player to align the mechanism with strings at either A = 415 Hz or A = 440 Hz. If a tuning other than equal temperament is used, the instrument requires retuning once the keyboard is shifted.[15]


Ms 7295 f 128 Henri Arnault de Zwolle
An early diagram of a vertical harpsichord (clavicytherium) by Arnault de Zwolle, c. 1430

The harpsichord was most likely invented in the late Middle Ages. By the 16th century, harpsichord makers in Italy were making lightweight instruments with low string tension. A different approach was taken in the Southern Netherlands starting in the late 16th century, notably by the Ruckers family. Their harpsichords used a heavier construction and produced a more powerful and distinctive tone. They included the first harpsichords with two keyboards, used for transposition.

The Flemish instruments served as the model for 18th-century harpsichord construction in other nations. In France, the double keyboards were adapted to control different choirs of strings, making a more musically flexible instrument. Instruments from the peak of the French tradition, by makers such as the Blanchet family and Pascal Taskin, are among the most widely admired of all harpsichords, and are frequently used as models for the construction of modern instruments. In England, the Kirkman and Shudi firms produced sophisticated harpsichords of great power and sonority. German builders extended the sound repertoire of the instrument by adding sixteen foot and two foot choirs; these instruments have recently served as models for modern builders.

In the late 18th century the harpsichord was supplanted by the piano and almost disappeared from view for most of the 19th century: an exception was its continued use in opera for accompanying recitative, but the piano sometimes displaced it even there. Twentieth-century efforts to revive the harpsichord began with instruments that used piano technology, with heavy strings and metal frames. Starting in the middle of the 20th century, ideas about harpsichord making underwent a major change, when builders such as Frank Hubbard, William Dowd, and Martin Skowroneck sought to re-establish the building traditions of the Baroque period. Harpsichords of this type of historically informed building practice dominate the current scene.


Historical period

Bach's Little Prelude in C major being played on a harpsichord

The great bulk of the standard repertoire for the harpsichord was written during its first historical flowering, the Renaissance and Baroque eras.

The first music written specifically for solo harpsichord was published around the early 16th century. Composers who wrote solo harpsichord music were numerous during the whole Baroque era in European countries including Italy, Germany, England and France. Solo harpsichord compositions included dance suites, fantasias, and fugues. Among the most famous composers who wrote for the harpsichord were the members of English virginal school of the late Renaissance, notably William Byrd (ca. 1540–1623). In France, a great number of highly characteristic solo works were created and compiled into four books of ordres by François Couperin (1668–1733). Domenico Scarlatti (1685–1757) began his career in Italy but wrote most of his solo harpsichord works in Spain; his most famous work is his series of 555 harpsichord sonatas. Perhaps the most celebrated composers who wrote for the harpsichord were Georg Friedrich Händel (1685–1759), who composed numerous suites for harpsichord, and especially J. S. Bach (1685–1750), whose solo works (for instance, the Well-Tempered Clavier and the Goldberg Variations), continue to be performed very widely, often on the piano. Bach was also a pioneer of the harpsichord concerto, both in works designated as such, and in the harpsichord part of his Fifth Brandenburg Concerto.

Two of the most prominent composers of the Classical era, Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791), wrote harpsichord music. For both, the instrument featured in the earlier period of their careers, and although they had come into contact with the piano later on, they nonetheless continued to play the harpsichord and clavichord for the rest of their lives. Mozart was noted to have played his second last keyboard concerto (the "Coronation") on the harpsichord.

Music written for the revived instrument

Through the 19th century, the harpsichord was almost completely supplanted by the piano. In the 20th century, composers returned to the instrument, as they sought out variation in the sounds available to them. Under the influence of Arnold Dolmetsch, the harpsichordists Violet Gordon-Woodhouse (1872–1951) and in France, Wanda Landowska (1879–1959), were at the forefront of the instrument's renaissance. Concertos for the instrument were written by Francis Poulenc (the Concert champêtre, 1927–28), and Manuel de Falla. Elliott Carter's Double Concerto is scored for harpsichord, piano and two chamber orchestras. For a detailed account of music composed for the revived harpsichord, see Contemporary harpsichord.

See also


  1. ^ Kottick (1987, 19)
  2. ^ In virtually all instances, "more than one" means two. For the one known three-manual instrument, see Hieronymus Albrecht Hass. For forged three-manual instruments, see Leopoldo Franciolini.
  3. ^ Find full details in Hubbard 1967, p. 133 ff., Russell 1973, p. 65 ff., Kottick 2003.
  4. ^ a b Hubbard 1967, p. 19
  5. ^ Hubbard 1967, p. 20
  6. ^ Hubbard 1967, various locations
  7. ^ "The Harpsichord". Iowa State University Musica Antiqua. Archived from the original on 2005-10-25. Retrieved 2018-05-01.
  8. ^ Dearling 1996, p. 138.
  9. ^ Kottick (2003, 61)
  10. ^ Marchand, Leslie Alexis (1973). Byron's letters and journals: 1816–1817 : 'So late into the night'. Harvard: Harvard University Press. p. 75. ISBN 978-0-674-08945-7. "Model IX is the famous double virginal. An ottavino of model VIII is inserted into the case of the virginal like a drawer slipping into a bureau."
  11. ^ Ottavino at rawbw.com
  12. ^ "Pedal Harpsichords". Harpsichord.org.uk. Archived from the original on 23 May 2013. Retrieved 22 May 2013.
  13. ^ "About Leith Hill". Keith Hill – Instrument Maker. Retrieved 2018-04-30.
  14. ^ "Bach on the Pedal Harpsichord by E. Power Biggs at". Jsbach.org. 20 May 1995. Retrieved 22 May 2013.
  15. ^ "The Transposing Keyboard". Hubharp.com. Retrieved 22 May 2013.


  • Boalch, Donald H. (1995) Makers of the Harpsichord and Clavichord, 1440–1840, 3rd ed., with updates by Andreas H. Roth and Charles Mould, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-318429-X. A catalogue, originating with work by Boalch in the 1950s, of all extant historical instruments.
  • Dearling, Robert, ed. (1996). The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Musical Instruments. London: Carlton. ISBN 978-1-85868-185-6.
  • Hubbard, Frank (1967). Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making (2 ed.). Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-88845-6. An authoritative survey by a leading builder of how early harpsichords were built and how the harpsichord evolved over time in different national traditions.
  • Kottick, Edward (1987)The Harpsichord Owner's Guide. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  • Kottick, Edward (2003) A History of the Harpsichord, Indiana University Press, ISBN 0-253-34166-3. An extensive survey by a leading contemporary scholar.
  • The New Grove: Early Keyboard Instruments. Macmillan, 1989 ISBN 0-393-02554-3. (material from here is also available online in Grove Music Online)
  • O'Brien, Grant (1990) Ruckers, a harpsichord and virginal building tradition, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-36565-1. Covers the innovations of the Ruckers family, the founders of the Flemish tradition.
  • Russell, Raymond (1973)The Harpsichord and Clavichord: an introductory study, 2nd ed., London : Faber and Faber, ISBN 0-571-04795-5
  • Skowroneck, Martin (2003) Cembalobau: Erfahrungen und Erkenntnisse aus der Werkstattpraxis = Harpsichord construction: a craftsman's workshop experience and insight, Fachbuchreihe Das Musikinstrument 83, Bergkirchen : Bochinsky, ISBN 3-932275-58-6. A study (written in English and German) of harpsichord building by a leading figure in the modern revival of historically authentic methods of building.
  • Zuckermann, Wolfgang (1969) The Modern Harpsichord: twentieth century instruments and their makers, New York : October House, ISBN 0-8079-0165-2

External links






Craftsman insights



  • About Harpsichords. Harpsichord builder Paul Y. Irvin treats the question of necessary and sufficient compass, and other instrument technicalities, in this section of his informative site.
34 Scores for Piano, Organ, Harpsichord and Celeste

34 Scores for Piano, Organ, Harpsichord and Celeste is a song book by Icelandic singer Björk, published by Wise Publications on June 5, 2017. Björk worked on the book, which includes arrangements of songs from Debut (1993), Post (1995), Homogenic (1997), Selmasongs (2000), Vespertine (2001), Medúlla (2004), Drawing Restraint 9 (2005), Volta (2007), and Vulnicura (2015), in collaboration with Icelandic pianist Jónas Sen, the art and design partnership M/M Paris, and the engraving company Notengrafik Berlin, over the course of six years.

Baroque pop

Baroque pop (sometimes called baroque rock) is a fusion genre that combines rock music with particular elements of classical music. It emerged in the mid 1960s as artists pursued a majestic, orchestral sound and is identifiable for its appropriation of Baroque compositional styles (contrapuntal melodies and functional harmony patterns) and dramatic or melancholic gestures. Harpsichords figure prominently, while oboes, French horns, and string quartets are also common.Although harpsichords had been deployed for a number of pop hits since the 1940s, starting in the 1960s, some record producers increasingly placed the instrument in the foreground of their arrangements. Inspired partly by the Beatles' song "In My Life" (1965), various groups were incorporating baroque and classical instrumentation by early 1966. The term "baroque rock" was coined in promotional material for the Left Banke, who used harpsichords and violins in their arrangements and whose 1966 song "Walk Away Renée" exemplified the style.Baroque pop's mainstream popularity faded by the 1970s, partially because punk rock, disco and hard rock took over; nonetheless, music was still produced within the genre's tradition. Philadelphia soul in the 1970s and chamber pop in the 1990s both incorporated the spirit of baroque pop while the latter contested much of the time's low fidelity musical aesthetic.

Brandenburg Concertos

The Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach (BWV 1046–1051, original title: Six Concerts à plusieurs instruments) are a collection of six instrumental works presented by Bach to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt, in 1721 (though probably composed earlier). They are widely regarded as some of the best orchestral compositions of the Baroque era.

Domenico Scarlatti

Giuseppe Domenico Scarlatti (Naples, 26 October 1685 – Madrid, 23 July 1757) was an Italian composer. He is classified primarily as a Baroque composer chronologically, although his music was influential in the development of the Classical style and he was one of the few Baroque composers to transition into the classical period. Like his renowned father Alessandro Scarlatti, he composed in a variety of musical forms, although today he is known mainly for his 555 keyboard sonatas. He spent much of his life in the service of the Portuguese and Spanish royal families.


A harpsichordist is a person who plays the harpsichord.

Many baroque composers played the harpsichord, including Johann Sebastian Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, George Frideric Handel, François Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau. At this time, it was common for such musicians also to play the organ, and all keyboard instruments, and to direct orchestral music while playing continuo on the instrument.

Modern harpsichord playing can be roughly divided into three eras, beginning with the career of the influential reviver of the instrument, Wanda Landowska. At this stage of the 'harpsichord revival', players generally used harpsichords of a heavy, piano-influenced type made by makers such as Pleyel; the revival of the instrument also led some composers to write specifically for the instrument, often on the request of Landowska. An influential later group of English players using post-Pleyel instruments by Thomas Goff and the Goble family included George Malcolm and Thurston Dart. Beginning in the 1920s, Gavin Williamson and Philip Manuel also helped popularize the harpsichord through concert tours, and were, in fact, the world's only full-time harpsichord duo, known as Manuel and Williamson, performing throughout North American and Europe. They had studied for many years with Wanda Landowska both in France and in New York. In the 1930s Manual and Williamson made the first recordings of the Bach multiple keyboard concerti with members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the duo also gave the American premiere performance of Bach's Concerto in C major for two harpsichords. In addition, they gave American premieres of many works of Couperin and Rameau, among other composers. The next generation of harpsichordists were pioneers of modern performance on instruments built according to the authentic practices of the earlier period, following the research of such scholar-builders as Frank Hubbard and William Dowd. This generation of performers included such players as Isohlde Ahlgrimm, Ralph Kirkpatrick, Igor Kipnis, and Gustav Leonhardt. More recently, many outstanding harpsichordists have appeared, such as Scott Ross, Trevor Pinnock, Kenneth Gilbert, Christopher Hogwood, Jos van Immerseel, Ton Koopman, Gary Cooper and David Schrader, with many of them also directing a baroque orchestra from the instrument.

Jean-Philippe Rameau

Jean-Philippe Rameau (French: [ʒɑ̃filip ʁamo]; (1683-09-25)25 September 1683 – (1764-09-12)12 September 1764) was one of the most important French composers and music theorists of the 18th century. He replaced Jean-Baptiste Lully as the dominant composer of French opera and is also considered the leading French composer for the harpsichord of his time, alongside François Couperin.Little is known about Rameau's early years. It was not until the 1720s that he won fame as a major theorist of music with his Treatise on Harmony (1722) and also in the following years as a composer of masterpieces for the harpsichord, which circulated throughout Europe. He was almost 50 before he embarked on the operatic career on which his reputation chiefly rests today. His debut, Hippolyte et Aricie (1733), caused a great stir and was fiercely attacked by the supporters of Lully's style of music for its revolutionary use of harmony. Nevertheless, Rameau's pre-eminence in the field of French opera was soon acknowledged, and he was later attacked as an "establishment" composer by those who favoured Italian opera during the controversy known as the Querelle des Bouffons in the 1750s. Rameau's music had gone out of fashion by the end of the 18th century, and it was not until the 20th that serious efforts were made to revive it. Today, he enjoys renewed appreciation with performances and recordings of his music ever more frequent.

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach (31 March [O.S. 21 March] 1685 – 28 July 1750) was a German composer and musician of the Baroque period. He is known for instrumental compositions such as the Art of Fugue, the Brandenburg Concertos, and the Goldberg Variations as well as for vocal music such as the St Matthew Passion and the Mass in B minor. Since the 19th-century Bach Revival he has been generally regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time.The Bach family already counted several composers when Johann Sebastian was born as the last child of a city musician in Eisenach. After becoming an orphan at age 10, he lived for five years with his eldest brother Johann Christoph Bach, after which he continued his musical development in Lüneburg. From 1703 he was back in Thuringia, working as a musician for Protestant churches in Arnstadt and Mühlhausen and, for longer stretches of time, at courts in Weimar—where he expanded his repertoire for the organ—and Köthen—where he was mostly engaged with chamber music. From 1723 he was employed as Thomaskantor (cantor at St. Thomas) in Leipzig. He composed music for the principal Lutheran churches of the city, and for its university's student ensemble Collegium Musicum. From 1726 he published some of his keyboard and organ music. In Leipzig, as had happened in some of his earlier positions, he had a difficult relation with his employer, a situation that was little remedied when he was granted the title of court composer by King Augustus III of Poland in 1736. In the last decades of his life he reworked and extended many of his earlier compositions. He died of complications after eye surgery in 1750 at the age of 65.

Bach enriched established German styles through his mastery of counterpoint, harmonic and motivic organisation, and his adaptation of rhythms, forms, and textures from abroad, particularly from Italy and France. Bach's compositions include hundreds of cantatas, both sacred and secular. He composed Latin church music, Passions, oratorios, and motets. He often adopted Lutheran hymns, not only in his larger vocal works, but for instance also in his four-part chorales and his sacred songs. He wrote extensively for organ and for other keyboard instruments. He composed concertos, for instance for violin and for harpsichord, and suites, as chamber music as well as for orchestra. Many of his works employ the genres of canon and fugue.

Throughout the 18th century Bach was mostly renowned as an organist, while his keyboard music, such as The Well-Tempered Clavier, was appreciated for its didactic qualities. The 19th century saw the publication of some major Bach biographies, and by the end of that century all of his known music had been printed. Dissemination of scholarship on the composer continued through periodicals and websites exclusively devoted to him, and other publications such as the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (BWV, a numbered catalogue of his works) and new critical editions of his compositions. His music was further popularised through a multitude of arrangements, including for instance the Air on the G String, and of recordings, for instance three different box sets with complete performances of the composer's works marking the 250th anniversary of his death.

Keyboard concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach

The harpsichord concertos, BWV 1052–1065, are concertos for harpsichord, strings and continuo by Johann Sebastian Bach. There are seven complete concertos for a single harpsichord (BWV 1052–1058), three concertos for two harpsichords (BWV 1060–1062), two concertos for three harpsichords (BWV 1063 and 1064), and one concerto for four harpsichords (BWV 1065). Two other concertos include solo harpsichord parts: the concerto BWV 1044, which has solo parts for harpsichord, violin and flute, and Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major, with the same scoring. In addition, there is a nine-bar concerto fragment for harpsichord (BWV 1059) which adds an oboe to the strings and continuo.

Most of Bach's harpsichord concertos (with the exception of the 5th Brandenburg Concerto) are thought to be arrangements made from earlier concertos for melodic instruments probably written in Köthen. In many cases, only the harpsichord version has survived. They are among the first concertos for keyboard instrument ever written.

Keyboard instrument

A keyboard instrument is a musical instrument played using a keyboard, a row of levers which are pressed by the fingers. The most common of these are the piano, organ, and various electronic keyboards, including synthesizers and digital pianos. Other keyboard instruments include celestas, which are struck idiophones operated by a keyboard, and carillons, which are usually housed in bell towers or belfries of churches or municipal buildings.Today, the term keyboard often refers to keyboard-style synthesizers. Under the fingers of a sensitive performer, the keyboard may also be used to control dynamics, phrasing, shading, articulation, and other elements of expression—depending on the design and inherent capabilities of the instrument.Another important use of the word keyboard is in historical musicology, where it means an instrument whose identity cannot be firmly established. Particularly in the 18th century, the harpsichord, the clavichord, and the early piano were in competition, and the same piece might be played on more than one. Hence in a phrase like "Mozart excelled as a keyboard player" the word keyboard is usefully noncommittal.

List of chamber music works by Johann Sebastian Bach

Chamber music by Johann Sebastian Bach refers to the compositions in the tenth chapter of the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (BWV, catalogue of Bach's compositions), or, in the New Bach Edition, the compositions in Series VI. Chamber music is understood as containing:

Works for solo violin, cello or flute (not including works for solo keyboard instruments or lute which are contained elsewhere in the BWV catalogue and the New Bach Edition);

Chamber music works for two or more players (where concertos for multiple players, and orchestral suites also fall outside the chamber music designation)

List of concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach's Violin Concertos, BWV 1041–1043, and his six Brandenburg Concertos survive in their original instrumentation. His harpsichord concertos are mostly adaptations of concertos originally written for other solo instruments.In his early career Bach transcribed concertos by other composers for organ (BWV 592–596) and for harpsichord (BWV 972–987). His Italian Concerto, for two-manual harpsichord, was published in 1735.


A plectrum is a small flat tool used to pluck or strum a stringed instrument. For hand-held instruments such as guitars and mandolins, the plectrum is often called a pick and is a separate tool held in the player's hand. In harpsichords, the plectra are attached to the jack mechanism.

Six Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord, BWV 1014–1019

The six sonatas for violin and obbligato harpsichord BWV 1014–1019 by Johann Sebastian Bach are works in trio sonata form, with the two upper parts in the harpsichord and violin over a bass line supplied by the harpsichord and an optional viola da gamba. Unlike baroque sonatas for solo instrument and continuo, where the realisation of the figured bass was left to the discretion of the performer, the keyboard part in the sonatas was almost entirely specified by Bach. They were probably mostly composed during Bach's final years in Cöthen between 1720 and 1723, before he moved to Leipzig. The extant sources for the collection span the whole of Bach's period in Leipzig, during which time he continued to make changes to the score.

Sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord (Bach)

The sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord, BWV 1027–1029, are three sonatas composed by Johann Sebastian Bach for viola da gamba and harpsichord.


A spinet is a smaller type of harpsichord or other keyboard instrument, such as a piano or organ.

Trevor Pinnock

Trevor David Pinnock (born 16 December 1946) is an English harpsichordist and conductor.

He is best known for his association with the period-performance orchestra The English Concert which he helped found and directed from the keyboard for over 30 years in baroque and early classical music. He is a former artistic director of Canada's National Arts Centre Orchestra and founded The Classical Band in New York.

Since his resignation from The English Concert in 2003, Pinnock has continued his career as a conductor, appearing with major orchestras and opera companies around the world. He has also performed and recorded as a harpsichordist in solo and chamber music and conducted and otherwise trained student groups at conservatoires. Trevor Pinnock won a Gramophone Award for his recording of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos with the European Brandenburg Ensemble, an occasional orchestra formed to mark his 60th birthday.

Viola organista

The viola organista is a musical instrument designed by Leonardo da Vinci. It uses a friction belt to vibrate individual strings (similar to how a violin produces sounds), with the strings selected by pressing keys on a keyboard (similar to an organ). Leonardo's design has intrigued instrument makers for more than 400 years. But though similar instruments have been built, no extant instrument constructed directly from Leonardo's incomplete designs is known. Sometimes it has been called harpsichord viola by mistake since it's a different instrument.

Weimar concerto transcriptions (Bach)

The concerto transcriptions of Johann Sebastian Bach date from his second period at the court in Weimar (1708–1717). Bach transcribed for organ and harpsichord a number of Italian and Italianate concertos, mainly by Antonio Vivaldi, but with others by Alessandro Marcello, Benedetto Marcello, Georg Philipp Telemann and the musically talented Prince Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar. It is thought that most of the transcriptions were probably made in 1713–1714. Their publication by C.F. Peters in the 1850s and by Breitkopf & Härtel in the 1890s played a decisive role in the Vivaldi revival of the twentieth century.

Johann Sebastian Bach was a court musician in Weimar from 1708 to 1717. He wrote most, if not all, of his concerto transcriptions for organ (BWV 592–596) and for harpsichord (BWV 592a and 972–987) from July 1713 to July 1714. Most of these transcriptions were based on concertos by Antonio Vivaldi. Other models for the transcriptions included concertos by Alessandro Marcello, Benedetto Marcello, Georg Philipp Telemann and Prince Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar.Around 1715 Johann Bernhard Bach, Johann Sebastian's second cousin, copied 12 of the concerto transcriptions in a single manuscript. This manuscript, shelf mark P 280 in the Berlin State Library, starts with the harpsichord transcriptions BWV 972–981, followed by the organ transcription BWV 592, and ends with BWV 982. The sequence of the concertos in this manuscript is possibly as intended by the composer. For the organ transcriptions there is no known sequence that may go back to Bach's time. P 330 is Bach's autograph of BWV 596, written around 1714–17. Wilhelm Friedemann Bach later wrote on this manuscript that it was one of his own compositions, copied by his father. In the 20th century the assertion by the son was shown to be incorrect, and the transcription was attributed to the father.The publication of these transcriptions by C.F. Peters in the 1850s and by the Bach Gesellschaft in the 1890s played a decisive role in the Vivaldi revival of the twentieth century.

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (22 November 1710 – 1 July 1784), the second child and eldest son of Johann Sebastian Bach and Maria Barbara Bach, was a German composer and performer. Despite his acknowledged genius as an organist, improviser and composer, his income and employment were unstable and he died in poverty.

Amplifiers, speakers
and schools
Musical forms
National and
regional traditions
Related articles

This page is based on a Wikipedia article written by authors (here).
Text is available under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license; additional terms may apply.
Images, videos and audio are available under their respective licenses.