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Most of my research is on German harpsichords, but I also do research on other topics. Recently I have been looking at German sources on organ registrations and also on the understanding of the triad in the 17th and early 18th century. I am not yet sure whether I will publish anything on these subjects.

German harpsichords

I soon realised that 18th-century texts discuss harpsichords in a very different way from modern ones, which shows that 18th-century people viewed these instruments very differently from modern harpsichord experts.


1: Context

Eighteenth-century German harpsichords existed in a context that seems very distant to us today. It's worth remembering that harpsichords were used and judged in this situation:


-Usually harpsichord builders and organ builders were the same people.

-Harpsichordists and organists were usually the same people.

The harpsichord must be understood as part of a world in which keyboard instruments were particularly varied, including clavichords, harpsichords, organs, early fortepianos, but also lesser known instruments such as the Pantalon, cembalo d'amour, "Gambenwerke", lute-harpsichord and all kinds of combination instruments. All these instruments were relatively common.

Nevertheless, harpsichords usually accounted for the largest proportion of the second-hand market until at least the 1780s, which shows their predominant importance.

-Texts discussing the qualities of different keyboard instruments usually refer to continuo instruments. Solo music was not considered the most important part of keyboard playing. Eighteenth-century texts showing the superiority of the harpsichord or fortepiano (both types of text exist) are not primarily intended to tell you where to play Bach's solo music...


German harpsichords themselves are generally misunderstood today. The common belief is that they were not very good and therefore not successful; the belief is that Franco-Flemish and Italian harpsichords probably played a major role in Germany. This popular belief is far from the truth. The Hamburg harpsichord makers exported harpsichords to Spain and the Netherlands and probably influenced the whole Scandinavian and Baltic harpsichord making schools, where instruments are surprisingly close to the German ones. Saxon harpsichords were so fashionable that, despite their exorbitant prices, they could be found in Prussia, northern Germany and the Netherlands, while Saxon newspapers featured only Saxon instruments, often by the most expensive builders. Saxon makers exported their styles to Sweden and Great Britain. Saxon harpsichords were often praised for their loud and dark ("Gravitätisch") sound and for their colourful registration possibilities.


2 Harpsichords

Saxon harpsichords were probably the most famous German harpsichords. It's a pity that only 5 signed instruments have survived, 4 from the same workshop. This low survival rate is the reason why they are completely neglected today. The only rather famous workshop that has left some harpsichords (4 instruments) is the Gräbner workshop. The most famous instruments are those of Silbermann, Hildebrandt and Friederici. The Leipziger Intelligenzblatt contains some advertisements for "Concertflügel" or "Orchesterflügel". Their descriptions show that they were all astonishingly large. Concert instruments had extremely large manual compasses up to contra C, or a separate 16' stop as a fourth set of strings. Some harpsichords even had the low compass and the 16' stop, which would have sounded at 32' in the lowest octave. The nasal stop was called 'spinett' and was also a very fashionable stop. Harpsichords had 2 to 4 sets of strings that sounded as 8' 8', 8' 8' 4' and 16' 8' 8' 4' and had 1 to 2 manuals. A Hildebrandt harpsichord is reported to have had 3 manuals. The most commonly reported manual ranges are C-f''', FF-d''', FF-f''', CC-f'''. Quadruple stringing and manual ranges down to CC are reported quite frequently. A Silbermann harpsichord was described as having 5 octaves from FF and 2 manuals and stops of 8' 8' 4', but it was considered to have a "rather powerful sound, though not a very large harpsichord", which shows the standards that were common. Harpsichords had a square back (no double bentside) and were usually plain, not painted or varnished, with a few exceptions. They were usually made of oak or veneered with walnut. No concert harpsichord is reported to have survived. On the other hand, double-stringed harpsichords seem to have been less important, as some sources mention that harpsichords usually had 2 manuals and 3 or 4 sets of strings.


The second most important tradition was that of northern Germany, centred in Hamburg. There are 15 surviving harpsichords, which is a good survival rate. Many were also advertised in newspapers. They had between 1 and 3 manuals, 2 to 5 sets of strings, mostly 8' 4', 8' 8' 4', 16' 8' 8' 4' and 16' 8' 8' 4' 2', perhaps 8' 8' 8' 4'. The compass was usually C-d''', FF-d''', FF-f''' and CC-f'''. The earliest secondhand advertisement for a CC-f''' (5-course triple) shows that large compasses existed quite early (before 1741). Hamburg harpsichords are usually highly decorated, often with lacquer, chinoiserie and tortoiseshell. The 2' seems to have been found only in combination with 16' stops and was made in Hamburg, but also in Danzig and Braunschweig.

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