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The representations of Renaissance keyboards vary throughout the numerous books, articles, and photo albums across the world. For the purpose of executing scholarly research in the field of Renaissance-period instruments, the harpsichord as the grandfather of today’s piano must not be overlooked. Bartolomeo Cristofori, an accustomed name to most keyboardists, was the supposed architect of the pianoforte. What is most thought provoking is the ambiguity in the resources depicting many different men as inventor of the harpsichord. Italy, a monumental nation built on the humanities, stands laterally with Russia, Germany, and Austria as a home to many innovations of musical instruments, virtuosic masterworks, and other divine musical antiquities. To examine the mechanisms, materials, and reputable works for the Renaissance harpsichord, it would be rash to investigate from any angle other than the Italian one. The Renaissance period, which we view now as the years from 1600 to 1800, is a very general stretch; however, the mechanisms of the harpsichord instrument, one of the first keyboard instruments, were predominantly consistent as years passed. First and foremost, the harpsichord is technically an instrument belonging to the percussion family. This is because of the plucking technique of the plectrum of the instrument. This plectrum, which is similar to our modern-day guitar, “attaches and sits in the jack, a thick, .5 millimeter piece of heavy pear-like wood” (Kottick 54). The plectrums, which exist for each string, are made of sturdy crow quills. At approximately one centimeter in length, this piece is narrow at the plucking end, has a flat top, and held in the tongue of the tongue. As the key is depressed downward, “the plectrum is raised and the string is plucked” – the plectrum then maneuvers in a pivot motion so it does not make contact with the string on the way down. (Hubbard, Schott 19) The point at which the plectrum plucks the string is the determiner of the character of the sound, known as timbre. Unlike our modern-day piano, the Renaissance harpsichord of Italy could not change in dynamic level, meaning the instrument could not control its volume. If
the point of the pluck is near the nut of the string, known as close plucking), a nasal sound is produced. On the contrary, if the pluck is in the middle or closer to the opposite end of the string, the sound is rounded and sweeter, which was customary to the Italian harpsichord plucking. Italian harpsichords are known for having a “bold sound and a more pronounced attack” according to the Early Keyboard Instruments: A Practical Guide (Rowland 24). Of course, every harpsichord was made differently using slightly different types of wood and materials. Pedals on our modern-day piano did not exist on the Italian harpsichord, but instead of pedals to assist in fine-tuning the music, these Renaissance instruments had extra keyboards known as manuals. Sometimes some instruments had up to three total keyboards. The actual keys were made of varying types of wood and generally, “middle C was typically right of center” (Ripin, 3). The length of the keys, according to Ripin, would feel different to a pianoforte player. The sensation of the white key F in front of F# would feel especially odd as the black key was longer and white key was much shorter. Like our Steinway piano of today, the harpsichord in Italy during the 15th century did have dampers, which are small pieces of felt. ”When the key is released, the back of the key falls and the jack drops back with it – the plectrum doesn’t strike on its way down, (enabled by its hinged tongue to pivot) and as the key comes to a rest, the dampers drop onto each key.” (Bond 43) As the damper drops, the sound stops. So while the harpsichord is unable to control its decibels-level volume, the timbre, tone color, attack, and decay can be controlled like our current piano. Each row of jacks controls a complete set of strings known as a choir. In cases of one-stringper-note harpsichords, which were more “French”, there was only one keyboard. The Italian thought differently, of course – they added manuals, the extra keyboards, which therefore called for two strings for the two rows. Another interesting difference between the modern piano and the Italian renaissance harpsichord is that we are used to a piano with eighty-eight
keys. Not every keyboard had the same number of keys. Every harpsichord was made differently and every harpsichord-maker had a different sense of construction.
An Italian harpsichord is easily recognizable by its shape; it is sharply curved behind the cheek because of its short scaling, and it has a long thin tail. It is usually strung throughout in brass. In addition, historic Italian instruments are unusual in having an outer and inner case; the outer case is complete with legs and lid, and the inner case - the instrument itself – with keyboard and strings – slides into this. All decoration is on the outer case, the inner being quite plain. (Bond 35)
The harpsichord’s shape is tightly curved primarily due to the short scaling. It has a longer tail because the typical strings were eight feet long, contrasting greatly with the harpsichords of countries such as France, which were generally four feet in length. There is significant proof that the strings of the Italian harpsichord were brass, a metallic material. The longer bass strings were even twice the length – this also called for the tightly curved casing. The shape and curvature of the strings played an immense role in the Italian sound of the harpsichord, which was round, full, bond, and majestic – perhaps a connection to the political nature of the country. As the outer case protected the instrument’s open keyboard and strings, the instrument’s case was “often decorated with elegant moldings and r are paintings “(Hubbard, Schott 55). The wood of the case was extremely thin, a trademark of the Italian harpsichord during the 15th-16th centuries. The wood was usually “quartered beech, cypress or spruce.” (Ripin 5) As we may know, Italy was advancing and showcasing its musical strengths as a country in both the instrumental and vocal realms – consequently, the piano repertoire is now
quite limited today. This lack of published music applies to the harpsichord as well. Italy “was the birthplace for so many musical styles, both vocal and instrumental.” (Bond 50) Music by composers such Girolamo Frescobaldi, Ercole Pascini, and Giovanni Maria Trabaci do contain replicable figurations, styles, and forms that are available to us today. Much of this music is in the style of the toccata, passacaglia, and vocal canzonas that have been “transformed into keyboard scores by adding runs and trills.” (Bond 50) Frescobaldi, a late Renassiance-early Baroque composer wrote is attributed to composing Partite sopra Passacaglia, a “noble, elevated tune, full of hemiolas and 2x3” groupings (Bond 50). Other pieces to enjoy include Pascini’s Canzona Frazese per Cembalo, (as cembalo is the Italian word for harpsichord), and Trabaci’s plentiful capriccios, galliards, and toccatas. The harpsichord as the basso continuo, which is the “accompaniment” for another solo instrument is excellent due to the instrument’s dry tone and precision. Nonetheless, even if it slightly disappointing that much of the original, authentic harpsichord notations are no longer available to striving keyboardists like myself, it is extremely engaging to perform Renaissance compositions on the piano to develop a greater appreciation for the overall development of non-contemporary instruments and the technological advancements in the society that we live in.
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