How Good is the Harpsichord?

Jean Rondeau records ‘Vertigo’ for harpsichord

Asking whether the harpsichord is the greatest instrument ever, is like asking can fish swim?

Now that I’ve answered my own question, here are 10 reasons why the harpsichord is the greatest instrument ever.

1. Strings are made to be plucked or bowed and not struck or hammered like what happens in a piano. The clear resonance that comes from plucking a string brings out its best and natural tone. Have you ever seen angels striking the strings of their harps? No, of course you haven’t.

2. The earliest known harpsichord was from 1397. An Italian from Padua made it. And as we all know, the best things in the world come from Italy, like my grandmother and pizza.

3. Harpsichords come in different styles and types. There’s the single, double and triple manuals. And no, a manual has nothing to do with a car. A manual is a keyboard. So, 1, 2 and 3 keyboards have some harpsichords. A manual means a hand-keyboard, as opposed to a keyboard you play with your feet, as in an organ.

4. Harpsichords are probably the most adaptable instrument ever. You can even make one yourself, it’s not hard. A chap called Henry Lim has made a working harpsichord from Lego, I kid you not. I call it the Legochord.

© Wikimedia commons

5. A favourite pastime of university music students is building harpsichord. The school I went to in Sydney, the students and I built a harpsichord. This taught them and me, the inner workings of the instrument. When the day came to show this instrument off to our fellow music students, some devious character (me) had decided to hide our harpsichord. However, in the nick of time, I discovered it, and the concert was a success. Some years later I wrote a piece about the disappearance of that instrument. The Harpsichord is Missing. Of course I wrote it for piano. If the harpsichord was missing I couldn’t have written the music on it, could I? Later came the Harpsichord is not Missing.

6. The harpsichord was so popular during the Baroque period that many people owned one. There was so many in fact they were a lot like the proverbial piano in every parlour in the early 20th century. Like a luxury Lamborghini in your driveway, a harpsichord was a necessary addition to any well-to-do cultured household.

7. Harpsichord music is some of the most difficult, tricky and entertaining music ever composed. The French excelled at harpsichord music. The Couperin’s were the number one harpsichord hitmakers of the sixteen hundreds. François was the best known and most prolific. But he came from a long line of musical Couperin’s. Have a look at his amazing extended musical family.

8. The French still hold sway when it comes to harpsichord music. Jean Rondeau is a player of extraordinary talent and skill. You can hear Rondeau’s copious talent on his album Vertigo. Pity he doesn’t own a comb though.

9. The harpsichord is the most beautiful sounding and looking musical instrument ever. Artists and craftspeople really let their hair down when it came to designing and decorating harpsichords over the years. Hear harpsichordist Elaine Comparone plays Jean-Philippe Rameau‘s Les Cyclopes, on an amazingly beautiful instrument.

This video not only has a stunning harpsichord it shows you how they work.

10. Australia is lucky enough to have perhaps the greatest harpsichord nut, read expert, in the world. Mr Carey Beebe. There’s nothing he does not know about the harpsichord. He builds, fixes, tunes, plays, installs and makes them. Carey says that the harpsichord is one of the crowning glories of any civilization. Of course, another is harpsichord music.

Now that you are more enlightened about the harpsichord, you will want to rush out and either buy some harpsichord music or an actual harpsichord. If you can’t afford to buy either, you can listen to 6 hours of French Harpsichord Music. That will get you started on your love affair with the greatest instrument ever.

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  1. Really? Quite frankly, I would swap the entire French harpsichord repertoire for any one of a number of J S Bach’s great organ works!

  2. The sound of Carey Beebe’s harpsichord is a revelation. By comparison, many recordings and broadcasts sound thin, harsh and ‘clogged’. Having discovered that such a lovely full tone is achievable, one has to wonder why some very famous players inflict a piano on baroque compositions! Just sounds and feels all wrong

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