Harpsichord

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).

A harpsichord is a musical instrument played by means of a keyboard. It produces sound by plucking a string when a key is pressed.

"Harpsichord" designates 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, it gradually disappeared from the musical scene with the rise of the piano. In the 20th century, it made a resurgence, being used in historically informed performances of older music, in compositions, and in popular culture.

Mechanism

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 functional arrangement. 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, nowadays often plastic), 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.
    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.
    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.