The harpsichord’s history stretches back to the thirteenth century when references to a “checker” in English documents are believed to refer to a type of plucked string keyboard instrument. No “chekkers” survive, however, but by turn of the fifteenth century depictions of plucked string keyboard instruments appear in art. Manufacture was well established in Italy by the mid 1400s, and the status of oldest harpsichord is held by an Italian specimen by Vincentius inscribed 1515. Sound production is by means of a plectrum (traditionally made of bird quill; more recently leather and plastic) that plucks metal strings. The tonal characteristics of different styles of instrument manufacture has largely to do with the design of the resonating box below the strings, the scaling of the strings as they progress from high to low pitches, and the position of the pluck relative to the total length of the string. With a range of four and a half octaves, the largest harpsichords have a narrower compass than modern concert grand pianos, but harpsichords often come with two keyboards, and multiple ranks of strings and quills to expand their sonorous range. The harpsichord was in vogue during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and after about 1800 enjoyed less popularity, due in part to the rise in popularity of the piano. The harpsichord was revived by specialist players in the early part of the twentieth century, but it was the early music movement in the second half of the century that established it once again as the principal keyboard instrument of the baroque era.
From the point of view of construction and mechanism, the clavichord is the simplest of strung keyboard instruments, but its simplicity does not indicate a lack of expressive potential. Drawing on an eminently simple premise and mechanism, the keys on the clavichord bring metal tangents into contact with the strings to both initiate the sound and stop the correct length of string for each note. Instruments of this type are described around the same time as the earliest depictions of harpsichords, but the earliest surviving instrument was made by Domenico de Pesaro in 1543, so some three decades after the oldest harpsichord. Early clavichords were fretted, meaning that one string was used for multiple notes, depending on the placement of the tangent. This permitted an economy of space in the instrument, and its compact size and modest dynamic level made the clavichord was the ideal domestic instrument. Later unfretted clavichords have wider compasses, and a string dedicated to each note. The clavichord’s expressivity is attributable to the direct contact between finger and string availed through the simplicity of its key-mechanism, and it is the only keyboard instrument on which the player can influence the pitch of the note once it is sounded. The so-called Bebung was used to imitate the singer’s vibrato that enlivened and added expression to the tone of special notes.
The early piano—often called fortepiano to distinguish it from the modern concert instrument—shared the clavichord’s mode of sound production, but instead of metal tangents that strike the strings, the keys engage wooden hammers covered in leather and/or felt to set the string in resonance. Sometimes called Hammerklavier to indicate the presence of hammers, or Hammerflügel (because of its wing-like shape) the fortepiano rose in popularity int eh second half of the eighteenth century, appearing alongside the harpsichord, and only later supplanting it as a concert and domestic instrument. Although there are other claimants from the same time, Bartolomeo Cristofori is generally considered to have made the first pianos in Florence around 1700. Escapement mechanisms, developed early on and a necessary part of the way the instrument functions, allow the hammers to rebound thus allowing the full length of the string from bridge to tuning pin to vibrate freely. By controlling the speed and weight of the finger, the player can produce both louds and softs, a characteristic that earned the instrument the epithet “gravicembalo [i.e. harpsichord] col piano e forte.” The instrument of Mozart and Haydn, the fortepiano lagged somewhat behind the harpsichord in modern revival. This was due in part to its more complex mechanism, and in part to its similarities to the modern piano, but today there is a growing number of exceptional players who dedicate their careers to its unique repertoire.