"Brightly the keys, all twinkling, linked, all harpsichording, called to a voice to sing the strain of dewy morn..." James Joyce
The harpsichord is widely seen as the forerunner of the modern day piano, the main difference being its plucking mechanism, rather than hammers, which gives it its distinct sound, the sound of the Renaissance and the Baroque, signalling in a new dawn for early music.
Concert pitch at the time was 415 Hz, approximately a semitone lower than today, which is 440 Hz. The harpsichord it very sensitive to fluctuations in temperature and humidity, and needs to be tuned at least once a day. The tuning process only takes about 20 minutes on average, so it is a small price to pay, for a beautiful, clean tone.
Not only is the harpsichord an excellent solo instrument, for which many works (such as sonatas, suites, toccatas, variations and many more) were written by composers such as B. Sweelinck, J. S. Bach, his son C. P. E. Bach, D. Scarlatti, Handel and F. Couperin, but the harpsichord, alongside the Organ, Theorbo and Lute, plays a central role in the basso continuo in most Baroque ensembles.
The harpsichord forms the harmonic bridge between melody and bass, and its central role within the basso continuo is comparable to the modern keyboard’s function in a rock, pop or jazz band.
One of the main features of the Baroque style for harpsichord is ornamentation, such as trills, mordents, turns and tremolo, which are particularly prominent in the French Baroque with composers such as Francois Couperin and Rameau. Many such ornaments can also be found in the famous Well-Tempered Clavier (1722) by J. S. Bach.
As a favoured instrument of the bourgeoisie and royalty, the untimely end of the harpsichord was brought about by the people’s revolts of the French Revolution (1789 to 1799), harpsichords and clavichords were thrown out of the windows onto the streets of Paris in anger and burned!
With the revival of early music in the 1970s, more and more new harpsichords were built. Pioneers such as B. Gustav Leonhardt, Ton Koopman and Nikolaus Harnoncourt reinvented Renaissance and Baroque style, and the harpsichord grew in popularity, and was once again seen on concert stages, and in chamber venues all around the world.
Today you can find harpsichords built in Flemish, French, Italian, Austrian and German styles all over the world. They all have their own individual character and tone. Historical performance practice has now become second nature for harpsichord players, and has influenced the way we approach modern keyboard instruments, and most importantly how we view the piano.