A fine example of stylish baroque continuo playing – accompanying an aria from a Vivaldi opera on a non-baroque instrument:

Viola da Gamba (Bass Viol)

The Contemporary Harpsichord

The first examples of the harpsichord date from early 16thc., and the instrument was obsolete by 1800. The harpsichord built by Pleyel in Paris in 1891 was the first harpsichord made since the 18thc. It was not a copy of an original instrument, instead it had a heavy metal frame like a piano, with a modern plucking action. The revival of interest in the harpsichord started with Arnold Dolmetsch in England, and the Polish-French harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, in the early 20thc.

Wolfgang Zuckermann invented the first self-build DIY harpsichord ‘kit’ in early 1960’s in New York. It was a very basic inexpensive 5 foot long design without a bentside, and a soundboard made from plywood – affectionately known as the ‘Z Box’. Zuckermann reported that before he made the kits available for sale, he gave a few of his friends all the raw parts necessary to make a harpsichord, and some rudimentary directions. “…These were people who wanted an instrument but couldn’t afford one, and they seized on this chance. Even the less mechanical ones were thrilled with the prospect, and their sheer will to possess such an instrument made them better craftsmen than experienced cabinet makers”. Several thousand of his harpsichord kits were sold before he closed the business in 1970. Since that time many makers worldwide, have made copies of historic instruments, including John Phillips, San Francisco, the maker of the DHSBE harpsichord.

Since the late 20th century, electronically synthesized (faux) harpsichord sounds have been incorporated into some electronic keyboards. More recently, digitally recorded period-harpsichord sounds have been incorporated into electronic keyboards producing a much more authentic sound; and the instrument does not need to be tuned. These recent keyboards often a have the option to change pitch A-440, A-415 etc., and a number of different tuning ‘temperaments’ such as ‘Werkmeister’, or ‘Valotti’ – a good temperament for tuning baroque string instruments – in addition to standard ‘equal temperament’.

In addition to the extensive use of the harpsichord as a solo instrument and basso continuo in ensembles in Renaissance, Baroque & early classical music, a number of 20th & 21st century composers have written works for solo harpsichord, or included harpsichord in compositions for modern orchestra, or chamber ensemble, including: Francis Poulenc, Manuel de Falla, Phillip Glass, Elliot Carter, György Ligeti, Bella Bartok, Benjamin Britten, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix, & Simon & Garfunkel.

Electronic Baroque

-Richard Webb