Gary Blaise Early Keyboard Instruments
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The Early String Keyboards . . .

As if in response to this need, an explosion of new string keyboard instruments appears to have occurred at the end of the 14th century; they seem to have sounded by every means possible, including touching (keyed monochord or clavichord-like instrument), plucking (keyed lute, psaltry or harpsichord-like instrument), hammering (keyed dulcimer or piano-like instrument), and bowing (keyed viol, hurdy gurdy or geigenwerk-like instrument). The earliest of these appears to be the 'chekker' and is mentioned as early as 1360. Unfortunately, surviving references to it do not describe its action and no representations of it are known at this time. If the chekker was a keyboard instrument at all, it may simply have been a keyed hammer dulcimer without dampers, a sort of proto-piano. Looking at those surviving references, however, it seems to me that the chekker was possibly . . . an autoharp! but this is the subject of another article. The 'clavicymbalum', a sort of damperless proto-harpsichord with metal plectra is mentioned, in 1397 and just such an instrument has survived from c.1480. The instrument, now known as a clavicytherium, currently resides in London's Donaldson Collection. A sculpture of what appears to be the same type of instrument has also survived from c.1490.4 As these instruments bear a striking resemblance to the medieval positive, it seems likely that it could, in fact, have been the new and still nameless clavicymbalum to which John I, of Aragon, refers in 1388 when he writes of 'an instrument resembling the organ which sounds by means of strings.'5 As John was otherwise a well-informed collector of music, instruments, and musicians, it seems he would have used the instrument's proper name had it been around long enough to have one. The earliest known reference to the clavichord comes along in 1404 and can be found in Eberhardt Von Cersne's 'Minne Regal'. Here, it is listed along with the chekker and the clavicymbalum, suggesting that each instrument had a different sort of action.

Interestingly, the clavichord・s name, derived from Latin, serves to distinguish it from the only other well developed keyboard of the time, the organ. .Clavis・ + .chorda・, or keys + strings, can be taken to mean a keyboard which sounds by means of strings instead of pipes. In about one hundred years, the harpsichord, finally evolved from the clavicymbalum, would likewise be named to distinguish it from the clavichord. By 1500 .Harpa' + .chorda・ is assumed to be a keyboard instrument, but one whose strings are sounded by plucking rather than touching. Another hundred years after that, the newly developed fortepiano would be named to distinguish itself from the harpsichord as a string keyboard which can be loud, (forte), as well as soft, (piano).

Representations of the clavichord and clavicymbalum appear in a carved altar piece of c1425 and a stained glass window of c1436. Henri Arnaut de Zwolle's treatise of c1436 contains technical drawings for these instruments along with a piano-like disaster he calls the 'dule-melos'; was this his 'new and improved' version of the chekker? He also illustrates a small organ which looks very much like the current one at Sion which had been installed about 50 years before his treatise. The keyboard range of each of Arnaut's instruments is about three octaves. His clavichord action is essentially the same one we know today but the clavicymbalum and dulce-melos are offered with four different actions which attempt to pluck and hammer the strings by various means. Each of these damperless actions appear rather crude suggesting that each design was accompanied by compromise of either a musical or practical nature and this is completely understandable considering the greater complexity of the harpsichord's action, not to mention the piano's.

From even the most superficial perusal of these late medieval keyboards, it is completely clear that no meaningful practice could be gleaned from any but the clavichord. It is also interesting to note that only the clavichord provided a damping system - an excellent, foolproof one, which would have been essential for the meaningful performance of the plurilinear keyboard music which was emerging towards the end of the 14th century.

One last important keyboard representation from this period must be mentioned - the beautifully painted positive which appears in Van Eyck's famous altar piece of 1432. For our story, the important feature common to each of these mid-15th century instruments is that they all appear to have the same proto-modern keyboard; no more button or lever type keyboards. This is the sort of keyboard upon which one could easilly perform the pieces in the Robertsbridge or Faenza manuscripts.

A virtual photograph of a clavichord has survived from the end of the 15th century in an incredible trompe l'oeil intarsia by Baccio Pontelli, c1476, in the palace of the Duke of Urbino. By comparison to the mid-15th century representations, Pontelli's four-octave keyboard appears quite modern. Another modern keyboard can be seen in the beautifully painted positive of about the same year by Hugo van der Goes, .Portrait of Sir Edward Bonkil・. Our understanding of the 15th century clavichord is informed largely by Pontelli's intarsia and Arnaut's drawings and modern copies of these instruments are known to work well. As the same cannot be said of the harpsichord-like instruments from this period and nothing is known of the chekker, we can guess that organists practiced on the clavichord simply because it appears to have worked so much better, not to mention the lower cost which must have accompanied an instrument of such simplicity.

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