The Difference Between Piano and Harpsichord Touch

Anyone who has ever played a harpsichord knows that the touch is entirely different from a piano's. The harpsichord feels "crunchy." This is because in depressing the key you must overcome the resistance the plectrum is exerting against the string. You can *feel* when the plectrum passes by the string. (You can hear it, too, of course, because the harpsichord then sounds that note.) Excess force causes an unpleasant "thumping."

A virginal feels the same way. The clavichord's touch is much like an organ's, yet the key dip (the distance the key travels before it reaches the full extent it may be depressed) is extremely shallow. Any excess force will cause the instrument to play out of tune.

If you are a pianist approaching the harpsichord for the first time, you might find the following generalities useful:

Some thoughts on developing a proper harpsichord "touch": If you're thinking about buying a harpsichord, there are many excellent reproduction instruments now available. Some have two manuals. (You might even find a pedal harpsichord, with a pedalboard such as an organ has.)

My instrument is a Hubbard (note the classy place I store my tuning hammer), widely considered the best. Harpsichordistas have an immediate mental picture of this instrument when I say I have a "single-manual Flemish," but you probably don't! It's based on an instrument made by Hans Moermans in Antwerp in 1584 and has the traditional "long" shape and a curved bentside. This instrument is illustrated on the Hubbard site. Search for it under "kits".

I am extremely pleased with it. It holds its tune and doesn't weigh much. I have moved it around my home many times, and it's had numerous trips to churches, ballet theaters, schools, and so on. The instrument and stand are separate, so that makes it easier. A mini-van is a fine transport.

The Hubbard harpsichord is available as a finished instrument, a partially-completed kit, a kit, and portions of the kit (you supply the wood for the case, for example, but Hubbard sells you the keyboard, which you may not have the tools to make properly). Contact Hubbard and tell them Martha Beth sent you. (No, I don't get a kickback!!)

Many other companies offer kits, partials, and finished instruments, so start shopping! Make sure to ask for referrals; you want to talk to people who play them as well as those who made them.

Nota bene: If you ever must move across country with a commercial moving company, insist the movers place the instrument itself in a twin bed mattress carton, well padded with -your- blankets inside the carton. Yes, they'll give you a lot of trouble and tell you they'll treat it just as they do a piano. You'll have none of it. You'll have a twin bed mattress carton because you know what you're talking about, and they've probably never laid eyes on a harpsichord before!

For more information on harpsichords, consult Frank Hubbard's "bible" on the subject: Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making, Harvard University Press, 1965.

As long as I have my harpsichord on display, here's my Fudge clavichord and Zuckerman virginal. (Note: The clavichord is cherry, and though reddish, not as red as my lousy photo shows it! Violas da gamba on far wall.)

copyright 1996-2011, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
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