Harpsichord Family – Harpsichord, Virginals and Spinet


There is no precise date for the invention of the harpsichord, but it was in use from the beginning of the fifteenth century.  A harpsichord is a stringed keyboard instrument where their strings are sounded by a mechanical plucking mechanism.  The harpsichord is shaped like a narrow grand piano, whilst the virginals are smaller and oblong in shape.  The spinet is similar to the virginals but triangular or wing shaped. 


The sound is produced in all the harpsichord type of instrument by small plectra, usually of crow or raven quill, which are fixed into the tongue in the instrument’s jacks, plucking the strings.  These jacks rest on the back of the keys, and when the keys are pressed, they rise and the plectra pluck the strings.  The jack then falls back under its own weight, and a cloth (or felt) damper, fitted into the top of the jack,  mutes the vibrating string.  The pivoted tongue, which holds the plectra, prevents the jack from being held by the string when the key is released.   Delicate springs of hog’s bristle (in modern instruments light brass) return the tongue to their rest position ready to be played again.


From about the beginning of the seventeenth century strings were made of iron for the treble section, usually brass for the bass. Jacks were usually made of pear wood and had no regulation screw adjustments.  Ivory as well as bone was used for a covering material for key tops, as well as boxwood.  Ebony was often used for sharps as well as boxwood or rosewood. 


The earliest harpsichord had a compass of about four octaves, and usually one or two strings to each note.  From the beginning of the seventeenth century keyboard compass was generally from four to four and a half octaves, often with short octave.  The Italian makers used two strings to each note tuned in unison, at eight-foot pitch.  The Antwerp (Flemish) builders added a third string to each note tuned at four-foot pitch, i.e. an octave higher.  Few instruments were made with a sixteen-foot stop, apart from those built by the Haas family in Germany.  The Haas family also made a three manual instrument, the additional lower keyboard sliding out rather like a drawer.


Harpsichord tone and volume was little variable by means of the player’s touch.  In order to increase its dynamic range various stops were used to change the tone colour.  A set of buff leather pads pushed against the strings at the top bridge, reducing the number of higher harmonics in the sound was one type of mechanism.  This latter stop was called a buff or harp stop.  The lute stop, or nazard was another device for changing the tone.  This consisted of an extra set of jacks that plucked the strings nearer to the top bridge, making a brighter more “twangy” sound.  Using a different material for plectra would also produce a different tone character, as did using strings at various pitches – 8 ft, 4 ft and so on.   


The harpsichord saw its greatest flourishing between 1500 and 1800.  By this latter date it was beginning to give way to the early piano.