The concert pitch at that time, a’, was 415 Hz, about half a tone lower than today’s pitch (440 Hz). In order for the harpsichord to sound ’clean’, it must be tuned at least once a day because of its sensitivity to fluctuations in temperature and humidity. A tuning procedure takes on average about 20 minutes.
Besides the many solo works (as sonatas, suites, toccatas, variations and many more) by composers such as Sweelinck, Frescobaldi, J. S. Bach, his son C. P. E. Bach, D. Scarlatti, Händel, Soler and F. Couperin the harpsichord ist – beside the organ, theorbe and lute – in the Basso continuo the central instrument of all baroque ensembles.
Its chord playing forms the harmonic bridge between melody and bass instruments. In harmony this connecting function as a keyboard instrument in basso continuo is similar to the modern keyboard or guitar in a rock, pop or jazz band.
A typical feature of the playing styles in the Baroque literature for harpsichord are many ornaments, such as trills, mordent and gruppetto, which are particularly prominent in the French Baroque with composers such as Francois Couperin and Rameau. But also in the famous Well-Tempered Clavier (1722) by J. S. Bach, for example, there are many such ornaments.
As a typical instrument for rich people (bourgeoisie and royalty), the definitive end of the instrument was sealed with the uprising of the people against the establishment during the French Revolution (1789 to 1799) at the latest. Many harpsichords and clavichords were thrown out of windows onto the Parisian streets and burned out of anger of the people at that time!
With the revival of early music from the 1970s onwards, more and more new harpsichords were built and played. Pioneers such as Gustav Leonhardt, Ton Koopman, Nikolaus Harnoncourt rediscovered and established the old playing techniques, but many music lovers also got interessted in the early music.
Today you can find worldwide true-to-original copies of Flemish, French, Italian, Austrian, and German makers. All have their own sound characteristics. The knowledge of historical performance practice according to the customs of the time is nowadays a matter of course for most musicians, even when performing on modern instruments such as the piano.