Posselius

Baroque Harpsichord Construction and its Effect on Timbre

Dr. Jeremy Smith [MUSC3802] E.J. Posselius 12.02.08

On my honor as a University of Colorado at Boulder student, I have neither given nor received unauthorized assistance on this work.____________________ Edward J. Posselius IV

Posselius Within the Baroque context (16th to late 18th centuries), the harpsichord played an extremely important role, both as an instrument and as part of the constant transmutation of instrument construction and design. The harpsichord is an incredible melding of machinery and fine craftsmanship. Each individual mechanism is impossible to describe with any sort of detail without filling volumes. Therefore, the focus of this exploration will 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 the outside container that is seen during performances; they were even referred to as ‘innerouter’ harpsichords1. Even more interesting is the fact that the ‘inner’ harpsichord could be removed from its shell to be played by itself, or even transplanted into a more modernlooking case (for the Renaissance at least). The elaborate decoration of the outer cases was a trade of its own at the time, partially because the procedures involved were much different from the techniques that luthiers used2. The ‘inner’ harpsichord is the most important when it comes to acoustical quality, although the density of the outer-box certainly would have at least a slight dampening effect on the box. Italian harpsichords were often removed from their boxes for performance3, and it could be speculated that this was to help broadcast the true sound of the harpsichord. The ‘inner’ harpsichord, which will now be referred to as just a harpsichord, is where the mechanical complexity of the instrument becomes apparent. The most obvious acoustical apparatuses are the resonant chamber or body of the instrument, the strings,
1

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. 2 Hubbard, Frank. Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachussetts. 1978. p18 3 Hubbard. p19

Posselius and the quills, which pluck the strings. There are still a number of other acoustical factors, including the soundboard, jack-stops, and almost every minute detail of bracing and jointing that could, and does fill volumes. The body of the instrument is by far the most important consideration for studying timbre, followed by the choice of string materials. An important distinction to make early in this discussion is that there are essentially two styles of harpsichord building, Italian and North European4. (This is broad generalization to keep this dialogue concise, as is with the various mechanisms described previously.) Italian harpsichords bodies were fairly thin ranging from 4 to 6 mm in thickness, and were often made of the tonewood cypress5, which has a bright, or brilliant quality. Thinner cases have been proven to sound better with a short scale (4 octaves), a fact that is dictated by the weakness of the thin wood6. Cases considered to be North European (which includes such areas as France, Flanders, England, Germany, and Spain) designs were more likely to have thick cases (up to 14 mm7) made of denser woods like poplar8 or walnut9. These thicker cases were stronger and supported more string 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 chamber10, providing important reverberations that define the tone color. Some southern Italian boxes were
4

Schulze, Richard. How to Build a Baroque Concert Harpsichord. Pageant press, Inc. New York, NY. 1954. p37 5 Edwin. p2 6 Hubbard. p9 7 Edwin. §3.2 8 O’Brien, Grant. Ruckers: A harpsichord and virginal building tradition. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1990. p16 9 Hubbard. p108 10 Edwin. §1.4

Posselius built with the baseboard recessed into the sides, allowing freer vibration11. North European instruments were built with the sides attached directly to the top of the baseboard, so the patterns of vibration were propagated differently, contributing to the different timbres found in North European harpsichord music. The thicker materials also allowed this delicate construction technique to be executed in an easier manner than thin sides would allow. Probably the most obvious aspect when considering the tone quality of the harpsichord is the material of the string. Brass and iron were the materials of choice. The iron was not strengthened as it is today (to make steel strings), and the brass was and still is an alloy of copper and zinc12. Brass strings are commonly used for the lower registers, while iron strings were delegated to the treble side; however, it was not uncommon to see an instrument made with only one type of metal13. Additionally, since lower strings were much longer, thicker strings of “comparative shortness” were used to keep the size of the resonant box on which they sit smaller14. Another consideration is where the string is actually plucked. The closer to the nut the picking point is, the twangier, or nasiler the sound gets. Towards the centre of the string, the tone is much rounder. Most Italian harpsichords will have the plucking points change position along the compass moving from close to the nut to the center as the scale moves from bass to treble15. This effect gives the Italian harpsichord a sound that is very expressive in the bass, open in the treble, and has a lot of lyrical vowel sounds16. It is
11 12

Edwin. §2.2 Edwin. §1.2 13 Farr, Elizabeth PhD. Personal Interview. 12.02.08. 14 Edwin. §1.2 15 Edwin. §2.4 16 Hubbard. p13

Posselius speculated that this was designed to emulate the Italian language and culture17. The Italians were not the only culture to incorporate specific aspects of their language into the sounds their instruments made through minute construction alterations. French construction (considered under the North European umbrella) employed resonance and string manipulation techniques to create a booming bass with a bell-like treble18. Additionally, the ranges for these instruments continue to grow as composers integrate greater registers into their works. The optimal range for a harpsichord is four octaves ranging from C to c’’’19 (a nomenclature too complex to venture further into). However, composers, as everyone knows, hate to be told what to do, and continually ventured outside this range. As a result, a variety of different compasses existed based on the needs of whoever commissioned the construction. At one point, in order to play some of Bach’s (admittedly late Baroque) works, a range of almost 6 octaves (BB to d’’’) is required20. Unfortunately, the optimal range for a harpsichord is four octaves. Italian harpsichords were forced to follow this rule because of their more delicate construction, and as a result, sounded absolutely amazing. However, as different techniques and technologies emerged, they were quickly adopted and utilized, as they should have been. The negative aspect of this experimentation is that sound quality is often sacrificed when modern (Renaissance) technologies allowed the “pure” Italian model to be altered21. However, the constantly changing Northern European style did become the more popular
17 18

Farr Farr 19 Schulze. p39. 20 Schulze. p37 21 Howard Mayer Brown, et al. "Performing practice." In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/…/music/40272pg1. 12.02.08. §5

Posselius construction style, and as a result, harpsichord ranges and alterations continued to develop. As compasses inevitably expanded, the stress from string tension had to be compensated for with stronger harpsichords. This explains some of the reasoning behind the thicker materials used during construction, as well as differences in string materials and gauges found in Northern European harpsichords. Other notable changes come from the Germans who delved deeply into the mechanical aspects of the instrument. They developed a number of contraptions designed to alter the timbre by manipulating the strings using levers or stops and pedals (now found in modern organs and pianos)22. All of these experimentations led to the development of the pianoforte. As luthiers thought of new ways to pluck the strings, they invented the hammer -- Germans were using pedals, and wider ranges were now possible. The new instrument of the time was the pianoforte23. It wasn’t necessarily better, just part of the evolution of instruments. The ironic thing is that the pianoforte’s inventor Cristofori was an Italian harpsichord builder, and preferred the four-octave range that is considered to be traditional24. Instrument evolution is the basis of organology, and therefore an extremely important aspect of musicological studies. When considering building an instrument, there is only one real important factor: the player. In order to suit their style, Baroque harpsichord builders emulated the sounds of their everyday language. For the Italians, that meant maintaining a fairly strict tradition that yielded a traditional tone. For the North Europeans (unfortunately grouped as so), exploring a variety of tone colors and
22 23

Schulze. p39 Hubbard. p182 24 Schulze. p38

Posselius alterations was appropriate not only to help fit their sound, but to progress through the natural and important process of instrument realization. As a result, a new instrument was born. That developed into a new instrument, which continues to evolve today, despite any attempt to hold on to tradition. These timbre experiments, past and present, are what drive minute variations that lead to significant mutations in both instrument construction and its direct correlation with musical style.

Posselius

Works Cited
1. 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. Farr, Elizabeth PhD. Personal Interview. 12.02.08. 3. Howard Mayer Brown, et al. "Performing practice." In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/…/music/40272pg1. 12.02.08. 4. Hubbard, Frank. Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachussetts. 1978. 5. O’Brien, Grant. Ruckers: A harpsichord and virginal building tradition. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1990. p16 6. Schulze, Richard. How to Build a Baroque Concert Harpsichord. Pageant press, Inc. New York, NY. 1954.

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