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stringed musical instrument played from a keyboard. Its strings, two or more to a note, are plucked by quills or jacks. The harpsichord originated in the 14th cent. and by the 16th cent. Venice was the center of its manufacture. At that time its prevailing shape was winglike, similar to that of a grand piano. The square harpsichord, often called spinetspinet,
musical instrument of the harpsichord family. Although the terms virginal and spinet, interchangeable until the end of the 17th cent., were sometimes used indiscriminately to designate any harpsichord, they usually referred to small instruments having one
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, became more common in the late 16th cent., when harpsichord making in the northern countries surpassed that of Italy. Perhaps the greatest craftsmen were the Ruckers family of Antwerp (late 16th–17th cent). Varying the touch in harpsichord playing does not alter the quality or volume of tone; to provide dynamic variety, octave couplers and various stops that change the tone were introduced. Contrast in volume and in tone color is made easier by the addition of a second keyboard, or manual, found on German harpsichords from the late 16th cent. and on Italian ones from c.1665. The instrument provided the basic support of virtually all the various combinations of instruments as chamber music and orchestral forms developed. In the 19th cent. the harpsichord, which required frequent tuning and replacement of quills, was superseded in general use by the piano. Since the mid-20th cent. however, the older instrument has had a revival in popularity.


See F. T. Hubbard, Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making (1965); W. I. Zuckermann, The Modern Harpsichord (1969); L. Palmer, Harpsichord in America (1989).



a plucked keyboard instrument, forerunner of the grand piano. The harpsichord, which has been known since the 16th century, evolved from the psaltery (a type of gusli). Changes were made in the construction of the psaltery, and a keyboard mechanism was added. The strings are plucked by a jack with a plectrum of quills (later, a leather plectrum), which catches the strings when the key is depressed. The harpsichord has brilliant tone but slight sustaining power; it is not suited for variations in loudness. The instrument originally was quadrangular in shape. In the 17th century it acquired a winged triangular form, and metal strings replaced gut strings. The harpsichord has a compass of four or five octaves. The case was usually elegantly decorated with drawings or inlaid work. There are various types of harpsichords, including the clavicytherium, which is an upright instrument.

J. C. de Chambonnières was the founder of the French school of harpsichordists. D. Scarlatti created a virtuoso harpsichord style. Outstanding French harpsichordists of the late 17th and 18th century included F. Couperin, J.-P. Rameau, and L. C. Daquin. Although interest in French harpsichord music declined in the late 18th century, it has enjoyed a revival in the 20th century.


Alekseev, A. D. Klavirnoe iskusstvo. Moscow-Leningrad, 1952.
Druskin, M. S. Klavirnaia muzyka. Leningrad, 1960.


a horizontally strung stringed keyboard instrument, triangular in shape, consisting usually of two manuals controlling various sets of strings plucked by pivoted plectrums mounted on jacks. Some harpsichords have a pedal keyboard and stops by which the tone colour may be varied
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