This very unusual item (showing left) is probably the world's oldest surviving stringed keyboard instrument – an upright harpsichord thought to have been made in Ulm circa 1480. Very few pieces of wooden furniture survive more than five hundred years so this is an extremely rare item. The gift of Sir George Donaldson in 1894, it is preserved in the museum of instruments at the Royal College of Music in London (opposite the steps behind the Albert Hall). It is very Gothic in style, with elaborate, brightly coloured decoration, ogee-headed windows where we might expect a rose, and parchment fringes around the soundboard.

The keyboard range, apparently E to g2, is odd, perhaps the bottom note was meant to sound C, and its hand-carved bridge resembling the branch of a tree is surprising, yet many other features are remarkably similar to later instruments. Each key activates a plucking mechanism, which has a tongue pivotted so that on its return (when the key is released) the plectrum passes the string without a second pluck. Each note was furnished with only one string, most likely of brass wire (as some fragments of that kind were found inside), and since it has no provision for dampers, or any trace of soft material that might be remnants of them, we may deduce that it had a ringing sound, like a psaltery, and consequently ill-defined articulation.

It is difficult to draw any firm conclusions about the state of harpsichord making at that time as this example offers us only a tiny keyhole-sized window into the musical world of late medieval Europe, so perhaps not revealing what was most typical of its time. We can't tell whether many harpschords were made in this form, or whether its preservation, apparently with very little interference, has been influenced by its very unusual form.

For a more typical view of early harpsichords our best resource is not surviving instruments themselves but their pictorial representation, in which they are usually played by angel musicians in stained glass windows, or in carved stone embellishments such as roof bosses or corbels in churches. In this example we see what is undoubtedly a horizontal harpsichord in an upper window of the Beauchamp Chapel in St Mary's Church, Warwick. This glass was commissioned from John Prudde of London, and made about 1445. Of slightly later date, probably around 1465, there is a harpsichord carved in wood in Manchester Cathedral, and another in St Wendreda's church, in March, Cambridgeshire. A useful 'Checklist of Fifteenth-century Representations', compiled by Edmund Bowles, can be found in Keyboard Instruments edited by Edwin Ripin, 1971.

A noteworthy feature of many pre-1500 harpsichords is their multiple soundboard apertures or roses. The photo above is not sufficiently clear to show them, but there are suggestions of four circular openings of various sizes beneath the strings, and this can be seen in other examples from Sweden, Bohemia, and France. Such multiple roses may have continued in England in the seventeenth century, as seen in the harpsichord by Charles Haward 1683 (with later interventions) at Hovingham Hall, Yorkshire.

From the early years of the eighteenth century English harpsichords survive in sufficient numbers to make some comments on the prevailing norms. Examples by Thomas Barton, Thomas Hancock, Thomas Hitchcock, William Smith, and Benjamin Slade provide a reasonable sample of work from a native English tradition whose features include: a preference for walnut as the case material; a pre-shaped pine baseboard on which guide lines for the construction were scribed, and around which the sides are assembled; a soundboard with no more than one rose hole; pine (or spruce) keys faced with ivory and ebony (or reversed) laterally guided by tongues or wooden slips in a rack at the rear; brass hand-operated stops projecting through the fascia board above the keys; strengthening lock-board battens fastened to the cheek and spine (showing here), and characteristically shaped end blocks at either side of the keyboard. That's quite a list of features but there is another characteristic uniting them. The preferred keyboard range was based on G not F, adopting a chromatic five-octave compass at an early date – perhaps fairly general by 1715 - so that most spinnets and many harpsichords had sixty-one notes, GG to g3, just such a compass as in the harpsichord at which Philip Mercier portrays G. F. Handel circa 1728. The picture shows a copy made by Michael Cole for the Handel House Museum, London. Note the deeply incurved bentside, indicating a short scaling with brass wire was used for the strings.

English harpsichord making took a new direction after 1715, with the arrival of Hermann Tabel from the Netherlands. James Shudi Broadwood, writing in 1838, has misinformed everyone by stating that Tabel learned his trade from 'the successors to Ruckers in Antwerp'. In fact there is little or no trace of the Ruckers tradition in Tabel's design, and no indication that he had trained there. His case was made from oak, veneered with walnut – following neither the English nor the Flemish tradition. The keyboard is of five octaves from FF, and his string scaling was exceptionally long – c2 being about 360mm – though we cannot say precisely as the bridge was moved forward, most likely in a restoration at Broadwoods in 1900. This indicates iron strings and the probability that Tabel made this for a lower pitch than we are accustomed to - perhaps about a=408. Broadwoods, or Dolmetsch c.1951, changed the key plates, so the ebony we now see is quite possibly not much like the original. Beneath the soundboard we find the characteristic structures seen in later English harpsichords from Kirckman and Shudi with an oak belly rail from which downward sloping braces take the thrust to the baseboard. The instrument showing here, owned by Warwick County Museum, is dated 1721. It has three sets of strings and four rows of jacks, including a cut-through lute stop played from the upper manual. The nearer eight foot jacks in the main gap are dog-legged to play from either manual. None of these features suggest an apprenticeship in Antwerp. But he was certainly successful because nearly all London-made harpsichords made after 1730 were made to this design.

An inventory drawn up at Cannons in 1720, the palacial residence of Lord Chandos near Edgware, lists a two-manual harpsichord by Tabel, so it is almost certain that Handel was among the first to play such an instrument. John Willbrook, formerly Tabel's workman, continued to follow Tabel's example as shown by a two manual harpsichord of 1730, now in Edinburgh. Jacob Kirckman was Tabel's foreman in 1738. He and Burkat Shudi, who established competing workshops in London, replicated Tabel's design with very few changes during the following decade, but after 1750 they introduced several refinements, changing their keys' balance points, and using tillia [limewood] for their key panels, not pine. To improve repetition they added fly-back staples in their jacks. Both workshops appear to have decided that a scale of about 340mm best suited their instruments, strung with Berlin 'steel' wire in the treble, at a pitch of somewhere near a=425Hz. Matching with other London-based furniture work they switched from walnut to mahogany by 1750.

Pedals to change registrations appeared much earlier than most musicians now imagine. Certainly by 1740 there was some prestige in having such a means of changing the voice of the instrument whithout taking a hand from the keys. An early Shudi harpsichord in the Royal Collection at Kew was originally laid upon a small organ case, to create a composite instrument equipped with a pedal mechanism to change the registratiion of the harpsichord and possibly the organ too. Throughout the second half of the eighteenth century English harpsichords could be bought as single or double manual, with pedals or without. Among Kirckman's instruments, and those by other London makers, the 'machine stop' to change registrations was a desirable item for their wealthier clients. When equipped also with a 'swell' pedal players of English harpsichords could create many tone colours and diminuendos at will. Frederick the Great had four such instruments from Shudi, while Kirckman harpsichords taken to Italy were regarded as phenomenal by local musicians. These elaborate London-made instruments were also exported to Vienna and St Petersburg and used at the two most important Imperial palaces in Europe. Sadly, despite their abundance, they are rarely seen or heard in concerts today.

Michael Cole, Cheltenham, 2018


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