In my post The string instrument: how it all started I have discussed Pythagoras’ monochord not only because it was the beginning of the string instrument but also because the clavichord has evolved from the monochord; they share the same mechanism ideology.

The clavichord was made around 1400 and was popular until 1800.  At the beginning, the clavichord was even referred to as monochord.

There seems to be a confusion regarding the first written reference of the word clavichord. I have read different sources referring to the word clavichord that do not correspond. One reliable source that really puzzled me was that the first record of the word clavichord was in 1404 in Der Minne Regel by Eberhardus Cersne:

“Das Clavichord und Clavizimbel erscheinen auf der Abbildung in Virdungs Büchlein als viereckige Kätschen” (The Clavichord and Clavizimbel appear in the figures in Virdung’s booklet as square boxes).

However, this is completely wrong. Since the writer refers to Sebastian Virdung’s (born around 1465) book Musica getuscht, that was firstly published in 1511. So how could Cersne referred in 1404 to Virdung’s book that was published in 1511?

fretted clavichord

Fretted Clavichord

Nevertheless,  the clavichord is a small wooden box and does not have legs or a stand. Because of its size it has a small sound, therefore it was meant as a private instrument used at home and not as a public instrument. The first clavichord had a range of 3 to 3 ½ diatonic octaves in C. By the middle of the 18th century clavichords had five octaves.

The strings and the soundboard are located horizontally behind the keyboard. The strings are in the left and are attached to pins on one side, over the bridge to tuning pins on the right side. When the keys are pressed, the back part of the key rises and a small brass percussion instrument – a tangent – touches the strings, determines the length of the string and eventually the string starts to vibrate. The string only vibrates from the tangent to the bridge. If played too hard, the string is stretched and sounds louder. This is because the key has a direct mechanical contact with the string through the tangent. Basically, depending on the pressure applied on the key the pitch can be altered in order to produce vibrato, which is called Bebung.

The Bebung is produced by pressing the key up and down with the finger and it only produces pitches above the note. So, the clavichord, depending on the force the keys are pressed, could be used expressively. The player can control the volume, attack and duration. When the key is released, the back of the key returns to its place and touches a woven which is found between the pairs of strings and stops the string from vibrating.

In the video in the following link, the mechanism of the clavichord can be seen, as well as the use of Bebung. Video: Clavichord action, and Bebung

The Clavichord has more keys than strings because each string has a few tangents, unlike the modern piano in which each key has its own string. This clavichord is called fretted clavichord. Most clavichords were double or triple (two or three notes would be played on the same string). And because of that those notes could not be played together (old music though does not require notes to be played simultaneously). In other words, like Pythagoras’ monochord, the strings are divided into specific rations in order to give a specific pitch.

Video: Fretted Clavichord, Bach BWV 846


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The oldest surviving signed clavichord was made in Venice in 1543 by Dominicus Pisaurensis. It has his signature written in ink above the keys DOMINICVS PISAVRENSIS M D XXXXIII. The clavichord is held at the Instrument museum of the University of Leipzig. This harpsichord instead of one curved bridge it has 3 separate bridges instead, which is more common in later North-European and Italian clavichords.

In 1693, Johann Speth in his book Ars Magna Consoni Et Dissoni asks for a clavichord that each key has its own string and not the strings touched by more keys.  After time clavichords would come into larger sizes, and around the 17th century unfretted clavichords would start appearing. The unfretted clavichord means that each key had its own string, thus the instrument is also bigger because there are more strings. Because of that and its bigger soundboard, in comparison to the fretted clavichord, it sounds a bit different. More than one note can be played simultaneously, since now the keys do not share the same string. The first unfretted clavichord was built in 1716 by Johann Michael Heinitz.  Video: Unfretted clavichord

Gerstenberg clavichord pedal, 1766

There were also pedal clavichords, with more than one clavichords added together, in order to be used by organists for practice.

Video: Pedal Gerstenberg Replica Clavichord

In all, the advantage of the clavichord is that it takes less space, it has less tension in the soundboard, there are fewer strings to tune and the most important of all it is that its the most expressive early keyboard.


Next Post: The Harpsichord family! ♪ ♫

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