Introduction to the Spinet, Harpsichord and Clavichord


Two types of stringed keyboard instrument were available to the household or court musician from the 16th century to the middle of the 18th: the harpsichord and its near relations, the spinet and virginal; and the clavichord.

The harpsichord

In the harpsichord family the string is plucked by a small plectrum, originally of quill but nowadays usually Delrin. The variety of sound from these plucked instruments is achieved not primarily by finger pressure, but more subtly by phrasing and articulation. Variety of tonal colour can be obtained, on a harpsichord in particular, by judicious choice of registration. The harpsichord was used both for solo performance and accompanying in chamber groups and in larger ensembles of the period. It typically had two sets of strings per key, tuned either to the same pitch or with one set sounding an octave higher (a 4' register). On later instruments an additional device could be found, called a buff (or sometimes harp) stop to give a pizzicato effect. The registers were controlled by hand stops above the keyboard. Two manuals (keyboards) were to be found on certain larger instruments, which usually featured three sets of strings.

The spinet and virginal

The spinet is a smaller, domestic harpsichord normally with one string per note. Having a slightly shorter string length, the strings often run diagonally from the keyboard in order to save space. The virginal (or virginals, the plural being equally correct) also has one string per note but here these run parallel to the keyboard. This useful domestic instrument was more popular than the harpsichord in northern Europe (particularly in England and the Low Countries) in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

The clavichord

The ideal domestic instrument for practice or solo playing in the 17th and 18th centuries was the clavichord, an instrument whose tone is not loud enough for anything but a small room. Here the string is struck or touched by a tangent of brass. In spite of its limited tone, it offers the advantage of a wide variety of touch and dynamic within its range obtained by subtle, varied finger pressure.

English Spinets

Of the smaller plucked instruments, the 18th century English spinets of the Hitchcock family were examples of craftsmanship at its best. These were of the bentside design, which enabled the instrument to sit against a wall while allowing the greatest possible string length for its compact size. Instruments of the same form were also made in Germany and France.

Italian Spinets

Equally popular in Italy was the spinet. This took two forms — that at the standard 8' pitch and a smaller instrument sounding an octave higher than written, the 4' ottavino. Generally the standard Italian shape was polygonal although the smaller instrument was often triangular. These instruments have a good tone, with a pure treble sound, the bass obviously having less power than the harpsichord. Charles Burney, however, in 1770, speaks critically of the popular octave instruments as "sounding more wood than wire".

Italian Harpsichords

Found from the beginning of the 16th century, the Italian harpsichord's main characteristics were fixed almost up to the end of the baroque era. These harpsichords were lightly constructed, almost invariably finished in natural wood. They usually had a single manual and a basic registration of two 8' stops which were often used together, although a 4' stop was occasionally an option. They have a characteristically pungent, immediate, almost at times percussive tone which is well suited to 17th century Italian music. It is generally thought that Domenico Scarlatti in the 18th century performed his virtuoso sonatas on a typical single manual instrument with short natural keys. These instruments are ideally suited to continuo accompaniment work and their immediacy of attack provides an excellent support for other instrumentalists led from the harpsichord. Outstanding makers include Baffo (16th century) and Cristofori (late 17th/early 18th century).

Flemish Harpsichords

The other main type of harpsichord in use from the early 17th century was the Flemish style instrument, and it is the name of the Ruckers family that is most associated with this influential tradition. Flemish instruments were more solidly constructed than the Italian, invariably with the basic two sets of strings (either one 8' and a 4' or both at 8' pitch). Two manuals were common, though the upper manual was originally used for transposing; only in the second half of the 17th century was the additional manual used for contrast of tone with the ability to couple the registers of both manuals for a fuller sound. A buff stop, operated on the lower manual, was often found on later Flemish instruments. Their tone may be described as fuller and more rounded than the Italian instruments, with a longer decay time to the note. A good Flemish instrument should have a full bass sound and a sweet, ringing treble. The Flemish often painted their instruments, decorative lids and soundboards being common features. Though the Ruckers family workshops dominated the market, fine instruments were made by Couchet, Dulcken and Albert Delin later in the period.

French Harpsichords

French instruments developed from the Flemish design. Many so-called French harpsichords were in fact Flemish in origin, rebuilt by French makers who increased the compass in both treble and bass. The music of Chambonnières, Louis and François Couperin and Rameau demands a very colourful and rich sonority. Although the 17th century Flemish instruments were able to offer this in part, the French harpsichord gradually developed its own characteristics. A typical French harpsichord at the beginning of the 18th century would have two manuals, two 8' and a 4' register and a buff stop. With its increased range it was heavier than the Flemish instrument; its refinements in construction gave its tone a warmth and fullness matched equally by the elegance of its appearance. Blanchet and Taskin instruments, from the 18th century, are the most copied.

English Harpsichords

English harpsichords, in contrast, had a directness and down-to-earth quality both in appearance and sonority with a characteristically powerful tone, a reedy treble and a sonorous bass. Of polished veneered wood, with a straight, plain design, they could equally have one or two manuals, the larger instruments being more popular in the 18th century. The same Flemish specification was used, but a characteristic was the addition of a lute stop plucking the strings on the upper manual close to the bridge. The principal makers were Hitchcock in the 17th century and Kirkmann, Shudi and Broadwood in the last period of the harpsichord's use. Copies of these are ideally suited to the direct style of the English composers as well as for continuo use.

German Harpsichords

The organ builder had the greatest influence on harpsichord design in Germany. Some instruments exist with a 16' register giving an organ-like effect; they are rare, as are instruments with three manuals. Nowadays a few makers are building instruments modelled on those by Hass. In general terms the harpsichord as a solo instrument was perhaps less popular in Germany than in France or England.

Flemish Virginals

The Flemish used the terms virginal, spinet and muselar to denote any instrument of the virginal genre. They developed the design of the virginal to a high art, many of the larger instruments having a full, rather plummy tone, although a trend of all instruments of the virginal type is a short decay period of the note. The writing for the instrument took account of its lack of sustaining power by the use of fast-moving passage work, ornaments and decorations at cadences. To cope with a variety of pitches and transpositions in use in the 17th century in Northern Europe the Flemish instruments came in different sizes.


Instruments on the clavichord principle were known in the fourteenth century and appeared to have been popular throughout Europe. By the 16th century it was little used in England and the Low Countries, although many examples can be found in Spain, Italy and Germany. Two strings per note, set closely together so that the tangent played both in unison was established as a general principle. There are early examples of fretted clavichords, where the tangents of adjacent keys hit one double string at the appropriate point. As the limitations of this are obvious, the unfretted design became standard in the 18th century. The clavichord extended its range to encompass the full five octaves required in the galant music of C.P.E. Bach. The expressive quality of his music demands the subtle variations of tone, dynamic and vibrato (or bebung) that is peculiar to the clavichord alone.