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A brief history of the Harpsicord in Europe


Italian Virginals Built by Christopher Barlow for Philip Pickett at the Globe theatre. This instrument is based on the virginals in the Victoria and Albert Museum that once belonged to Queen Elizabeth I. They were built about 1570.

Italian Virginals


Detail of an Italian harpsichord after Baffo 1574 (V&A museum)
Most Italian harpsichord hand a single keyboard. The instrument is
very lightly built and would have been placed within an outer case.
Some of these instruments were as long as nine feet. Usually strung in brass.

The harpsichord is really a plucked psaltery fitted with a mechanical device for the player's convenience. This keyboard, as an invention in its own right, was developed in the form we know today by about 1500 and the earliest harpsichords date from then. Italy produced the first instruments and for the next three hundred years built harpsichords that differed little in design with the exception of an increase in size.
Most were built of thin cypress wood and designed to fit into an outer case that might be decorated with a floral pattern, or covered with tooled leather. They were light instruments that would be taken out of their case and placed on a table to be played. 'The Italians did not go in for complicated instruments so they usually had only one manual and one or two sets of strings (probably 1x4',1x8'or 2x8'in the later ones) which were in play all the time. In other words stops were not usually fitted originally.
Because of their tendency to double the length of each string for the octaves they have quite a characteristic shape. The bentside of the case curves in sharply from the cheek and in the later instruments particularly forms a long, almost parallel, tail. By the end of the eighteenth century their length could reach nine feet.


During the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Flemish builders were making stronger instruments that could withstand a greater tension from the strings and this produced a change in tone. A single manual harpsichord would either have two sets of strings at 8' pitch ('normal' pitch) or one set at 8' pitch and one at 4' to sound an octave higher. There would be the facility to change 'stops'; usually this was on the outside of the instrument. A 'buff' stop could produce a pizzicato effect. Some harpsichords were built with two keyboards at this time, but they were for transposing. In other words they were two instruments in one case and were often tuned a fourth apart. It is later on that most of these were altered to the type of double manual harpsichord that we are familiar with today. The casework of Flemish harpsichords was highly decorated with paintings and printed papers and the soundboards would have flowers painted on them.


By the eighteenth century the compass of the keyboard had increased to five octaves and some of the work of the French makers was to rebuild and enlarge the fine Flemish harpsichords. Double manual harpsichords would be converted to the format we see now so that a typical disposition would be 2x8', 1 x4', buff stop, and shove coupler to link the keyboards together as required. The cases and soundboards were beautifully decorated with paintings, lacquer work (chinoiserie) and gilding. Sadly many French harpsichords were destroyed after the revolution and were chopped up for firewood.

Taskin Copy

This is a copy of a 'Taskin' French harpsichord.Built by Christopher Barlow in 1985. Cabriol legs, painted and gilded in the style of the period. Soundboards can be decorated as an optional extra.



The clavichord was a very popular instrument here. Hass, who also built one of the most elaborate harpsichords of all, built many. His harpsichord has three manuals, 2x8', 1x2', 1x4', and 1x16'. Many German instruments have a double curve on the bentside forming an 'S' shape.

Copy of a German single manual harpsichord after J.C. Fleischer. I have made several versions of this particular instrument. Versions include: 2x8',1x4' buff and transposing. 2x8' plus buff and extending the compass to five octaves FF-f3, and a version in a veneered and inlayed case. It is quite powerful, light and stable

Fleischer, German harpsichord





Replica of a Kirckman double manual harpsichord (Ashmoleon Museum Oxford)
Marquetry and carved claw and ball legs.
Stops: 2x8', 1x4', buff stop, lute stop, dogleg coupler.
Built by Christopher Barlow 1989


close up

version with burr Walnut

Close up of marquetry

Most of the surviving English instruments date from the eighteenth century when Kirckman and Shudi dominate the scene. These are mostly elaborate double manuals with 2x8', 1x4', lute and buff stops. The manuals could not be separated as in the continental instruments but the extra lute stop compensated for this. The casework was veneered and inlayed; with the exception of the English virginals painting was not a common method of finishing instruments.
During the last part of the eighteenth century the newly invented piano was finding much favour due to its ability to play loud and soft. In an attempt to compete, harpsichords were fitted with pedals to operate a 'machine stop' and a swell (the nag's head swell could open and close part of the lid.). By 1800 the harpsichord was obsolete.

tangent piano

This is a copy of a tangent piano. The original was built in the 16th century as a spinet and converted to tangents soon after. It is a very crude piano as it hits the strings rather than plucking them. It predates the true invention of the piano by Cristofori (c.1700)