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Baroque Harpsichord Construction and their effects on Timbre (2008)

Baroque Harpsichord Construction and their effects on Timbre (2008)

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Published by EJ Posselius

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Published by: EJ Posselius on Mar 17, 2011
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Baroque Harpsichord Construction and itsEffect on Timbre
Dr. Jeremy Smith[MUSC3802]E.J. Posselius12.02.08
On my honor as a University of Colorado at Boulder student, I have neither given nor receivedunauthorized assistance on this work.____________________ Edward J. Posselius IV
PosseliusWithin the Baroque context (16 
to late 18 
centuries), the harpsichord played an extremely important role, both as an instrument and as part of the constant transmutationof instrument construction and design. The harpsichord is an incredible melding of machinery and fine craftsmanship. Each individual mechanism is impossible to describewith any sort of detail without filling volumes. Therefore, the focus of this explorationwill be to study a few of the construction variations that dictated the different timbres of harpsichords that were built in Europe during the Baroque period.Harpsichords are peculiar instruments in that they are built separately from theoutside container that is seen during performances; they were even referred to as ‘inner-outer’ harpsichords
. Even more interesting is the fact that the ‘inner’ harpsichord couldbe removed from its shell to be played by itself, or even transplanted into a more modern-looking case (for the Renaissance at least). The elaborate decoration of the outer caseswas a trade of its own at the time, partially because the procedures involved were muchdifferent from the techniques that luthiers used
. The ‘inner’ harpsichord is the mostimportant when it comes to acoustical quality, although the density of the outer-boxcertainly would have at least a slight dampening effect on the box. Italian harpsichordswere often removed from their boxes for performance
, and it could be speculated thatthis was to help broadcast the true sound of the harpsichord.The ‘inner’ harpsichord, which will now be referred to as just a harpsichord, iswhere the mechanical complexity of the instrument becomes apparent. The most obviousacoustical apparatuses are the resonant chamber or body of the instrument, the strings,
Edwin M. Ripin, et al. "Harpsichord." In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online,http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/12420pg1. 12.02.08. §2.2.
Hubbard, Frank. Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making. Harvard University Press. Cambridge,Massachussetts. 1978. p18
Hubbard. p19
Posseliusand the quills, which pluck the strings. There are still a number of other acousticalfactors, including the soundboard, jack-stops, and almost every minute detail of bracingand jointing that could, and does fill volumes. The body of the instrument is by far themost important consideration for studying timbre, followed by the choice of stringmaterials.An important distinction to make early in this discussion is that there areessentially two styles of harpsichord building, Italian and North European
. (This isbroad generalization to keep this dialogue concise, as is with the various mechanismsdescribed previously.) Italian harpsichords bodies were fairly thin ranging from 4 to 6mm in thickness, and were often made of the tonewood cypress
, which has a bright, or brilliant quality. Thinner cases have been proven to sound better with a short scale (4octaves), a fact that is dictated by the weakness of the thin wood
. Cases considered to beNorth European (which includes such areas as France, Flanders, England, Germany, andSpain) designs were more likely to have thick cases (up to 14 mm
) made of denser woods like poplar 
or walnut
. These thicker cases were stronger and supported morestring tension, which led to wider compasses catering to the North European style.An important acoustical aspect of harpsichord construction, Italian or otherwise,is that the bottom face (baseboard) of the box encloses the resonant chamber 
, providingimportant reverberations that define the tone color. Some southern Italian boxes were
Schulze, Richard. How to Build a Baroque Concert Harpsichord. Pageant press, Inc. New York,NY. 1954. p37
Edwin. p2
Hubbard. p9
Edwin. §3.2
O’Brien, Grant. Ruckers: A harpsichord and virginal building tradition. Cambridge UniversityPress. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1990. p16
Hubbard. p108
Edwin. §1.4

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