Gary Blaise Early Keyboard Instruments
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And What IS a Clavichord, Anyway ? . . .

The clavier, or clavichord,' wrote Daniel Turk in 1789, 'is so well known that I will not detain my readers with an unnecessary description of it.'6 You, however, will not be as lucky. As is well-known, all clavichords have only one moving part per note, the keylever. At the far end of the keylever is a thin blade of brass called the 'tangent' because it rises up and 'touches' the string when the key is depressed. This makes the key feel much better.7 The string set into motion by this action, sounds because one end is in contact with the soundboard via the bridge. The instrument is designed so that the tangent touches the string at exactly the point which establishes its requisite length, between tangent and bridge, for the note represented by the keylever. The note continues sounding as long as the tangent remains in contact with the string, which is to say, as long as the key remains depressed. The quality of sound depends largely upon the quality of touch, that is, how the string was touched by the tangent. The other end of the string, between tangent and hitchpin, is also set into motion by the tangent but kept silent by means of a ribbon of sound-dampening cloth, the 'listing' cloth, which is woven between the strings at that end. Upon release of the keylever, the tangent drops away from the string and the listing cloth silences the entire string instantly. The whole system is incomprehensibly simple and astonishingly inexpensive.

Until the 18th century, clavichords were .fretted・ which means that groups of adjacent tangents touch the same string in different places, thereby defining the specific string lengths required for the various notes represented by their keylevers. A good way to think about fretting is to simply recall how a guitar string is fretted in several places thus permitting the sounding of different notes from the same string. Although it is not possible to simultaneously play notes which are fretted to the same string, fretted clavichords are usually able to accommodate intervals which appear in literature up to the period for which they are designed. Fifteenth-and sixteenth-century clavichords, therefore, are often fretted in note groups of 3・s and 4・s, or .quadruple-fretted・. Seventeenth-century clavichords are fretted in groups of 2・s and 3・s, .triple-fretted・ and eighteenth-century instruments are fretted in 2・s, .double-fretted・. .Unfretted・ clavichords, those equipped with a separate string for each note, are generally associated with the mid-18th and early 19th centuries.

Back at the Ranch . . .

During the 15th century pedals had become an established department of many organs and, sure enough, the clavichord sprouted a set of pedals in response. Just such an instrument is described by Paulus Paulirinus in 1460 who tells us that it 'affords a useful introduction to the study of the organ and the like such that anybody well-versed in playing this instrument acquires the technique of the other'. Lest he has given the wrong impression, he goes on to assure us that the clavichord .is, moreover, a genuine musical instrument'. The English composer and organist at Lincoln Cathedral, William Horwood, was specifically directed in 1477 to instruct suitable choristers in the playing of the organ and the clavichord. At about this same time, a curious technical drawing has survived which clearly intends to show a pedal clavichord of some sort and perhaps one which worked by means of pedal pull-downs, simple cords connecting the keys of the instrument's lowest octave to a pedal board.

Personally, I agree with Adlung who, in 1768, tells us this is a mechanically compromised arrangement for the clavichord but apparently the concept was considered viable enough in 1511 to deserve an entry in the first printed encyclopedia of musical instruments by Sebastian Virdung. Virdung recommends that the clavichord be learned first in the study of the organ and the other harpsichord-like instruments which appear in his encyclopedia.

The 15th century emergence of the clavichord as the first highly evolved keyboard instrument for organ practice also coincides nicely with a period during which the post of organist had become a generally compensated position. Previously, talented monks may have been allowed to perform as part of their duties or worship, and, as such, went unpaid although they certainly must have enjoyed their charge. Even Sister Wendy gets out to enjoy a little art now and then. In the secular world, surviving correspondence from the court at Aragon shows that organists were compensated by early in the 14th century.8 Lay church musicians, presumably including organists, appear to have been customarily compensated by the time of Josquin who was working at Milan Cathedral in 1459, and Johannes Ockeghem, working at Notre Dame in 1463. Though not organists per se, the clavichord would have been a wonderful compositional tool for these vocal composers. To my knowledge, William Horwood is the earliest compensated lay church musician to my knowledge who, in 1477, was specifically working as an organist and it was certainly compensation which, a century later, lured Giovanni di Macque from Flanders to work as a church organist in Rome between 1580 and 1614. Compensation, accompanied by competition for fewer positions than applicants, would have motivated organists to maintain their techniques, in turn driving the development of practical practice instruments. In the continuing absence of other well-developed keyboards, it is no surprise that the clavichord would have been the only applicant for its job of teaching those little fingers to play.

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