A harpsichord action is rather simple. A movable strip of wood (the "jack") is placed on the far end of the keylever. This jack has a cutout into which another wooden tongue is placed on an axle. Within that tounge a stiff quill, traditionally from a raven's feather, nowadays often synthetic material, is seated in a rectangle. This quill plucks a string when the key is pressed and the jack is lifted. The ways of placing the strings, whether in a right angle, oblique, upright or parallel to the keys, was rather irrelevant as long as the quill could pluck its string.

This allowed to build harpsichords in many various shapes. Even the earliest sources convey instruments in wing ("grand") shape as well as smaller models which could be placed on a table.

Foto aus der Multimedia-CD-ROM "Mechanik der Poesie – Besaitete Tasteninstrumente des 15.-19- Jahrhunderts" 
Foto aus der Multimedia-CD-ROM
"Mechanik der Poesie – Besaitete Tasteninstrumente des 15.-19- Jahrhunderts"

The most important type was the grand, THE harpsichord. It had an upright variant, the clavicytherium.

Cembalo Skizze Draufsicht 
Cembalo Skizze Draufsicht

Nomenclature of the smaller table models is rather confusing over the centuries and in different countries. Two terms are used from very early on: „virginal“ and „spinet“, but which is which varies widely over times.

Modern use differs the two types according to placement of stringes in the instrument: The virginal has strings running parallel to the keyboard, the spinet at a sharp angle (usually about 30 degrees). Following this easily memorable practise some instruments formerly called "spinet" like the italian "spinetti" of the 16th century are nowadys sorted as virginals. Certain Flemish virginal types were, however, called "spinet" then.

The virginals' exterior shape is often rectangular or penta- or hexagonal with a longest front wall, those of the spinet more or less triangular in a kind of distorted grand shape; this type was very popular for domestic music-making in Italy, Germany and England.

Skizze Virginal

The smaller virginals and spinets and the upright clavicytherium usually had only one manual and no separate stops, therefore one string per key. The harpsichords in grand shape usually had several stops and those from Flanders, France, England or Germany often two manuals. This enriched musical potentials but required complicated mechanisms to cope with differing stop combinations and sound and dynamic contrasts.

Mechanik eines französischen Cembalos mit zwei Manualen 
Mechanik eines französischen Cembalos mit zwei Manualen
Mechanik eines englischen Cembalos mit zwei Manualen 
Mechanik eines englischen Cembalos mit zwei Manualen

Specific constructions were developed to solve these wishes which were significant for their different national traditions. Each country, each harpsichord offered specific solutions to achieve varying sound ideas and musical potentials. So from the 16th to the 18th century, while the basic technology remained hardly changed, a remarkable variety of harpsichord types with a variety of different details and characteristics emerged.


© Greifenberger Institut für Musikinstrumentenkunde |