The harpsichord falls into the family of so-called “quilled keyboards” such as virginals, spinets, and similar. The instrument’s earliest references date back to the 15th century.
In Italy, harpsichord makers were producing lightweight designs with low string tension by the 16th century. Later on, the Netherlands Ruckers family took a different approach. A heavier construction characterized their designs. This created a more powerful and distinctive tone.
The piano replaced the harpsichord during the late 18th century, and the latter nearly vanished for most of the 19th. The exception was its continued use in opera for accompanying recitations. However, even then, the piano often replaced it.
In the 20th century, there were attempts to recreate the harpsichord. Builders such as Frank Hubbard, William Dowd, and Martin Skowroneck attempted to replicate the manufacturing traditions of the Baroque period.
Sizes and construction of the harpsichord
Modern harpsichords differ in size and form, but they do share the same basic mechanism. All have the familiar form of the wing from which the modern grand piano shape derives. They may have only one choir or sets of strings, but most commonly host two, three, and often more.
Each choir is plucked by a set of jacks, sometimes at two separate plucking points. Strings plucked closer to their midpoints sound rounder or flutier, while those plucked closer to the ends sound brighter and more nasal.
The structural elements of the harpsichord are the walls, the bottom that closes the entire underside, the wrestler, the nameboard, the guides carrying the jacks, the belly rail, the soundboard, the inner supporting ribs under the soundboard, the inner bracing of the walls, and the soundhole in which the decorative rose is placed.
The overall dimensions and shape of this instrument relate to the strings’ lengths and the keyboard’s span. Concretely, the number of notes specifies the width of the harpsichord. The length, on the other hand, is that of the lowest string, an additional distance of the soundboard that extends beyond the far end, a gap for the tuning pins and the keyboard at the front end.