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Italian Harpsichord-Building in the 16th and 17th Centuries   By:

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Italian Harpsichord Building in the 16th and 17th Centuries

by John D. Shortridge

(REPRINTED WITH CHANGES 1970)

CONTRIBUTIONS FROM THE MUSEUM OF HISTORY AND TECHNOLOGY UNITED STATES NATIONAL MUSEUM BULLETIN 225 · Paper 15, Pages 93 107 SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION PRESS · WASHINGTON, D.C. · 1970

[Illustration: Figure 1. OUTER CASE OF ALBANA HARPSICHORD.]

Italian Harpsichord Building in the 16th and 17th Centuries

By John D. Shortridge

The making of harpsichords flourished in Italy throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. The Italian instruments were of simpler construction than those built by the North Europeans, and they lacked the familiar second manual and array of stops.

In this paper, typical examples of Italian harpsichords from the Hugo Worch Collection in the United States National Museum are described in detail and illustrated. Also, the author offers an explanation for certain puzzling variations in keyboard ranges and vibrating lengths of strings of the Italian harpsichords.

THE AUTHOR: John D. Shortridge is associate curator of cultural history in the United States National Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

Perhaps the modern tendency to idealize progress has been responsible for the neglect of Italian harpsichords and virginals during the present day revival of interest in old musical instruments. Whatever laudable traits the Italian builders may have had, they cannot be considered to have been progressive. Their instruments of the mid 16th century hardly can be distinguished from those made around 1700. During this 150 years the pioneering Flemish makers added the four foot register, a second keyboard, and lute and buff stops to their instruments. However, the very fact that the Italian builders were unwilling to change their models suggests that their instruments were good enough to demand no further improvements. Anyone who has heard a properly restored Italian harpsichord or an accurately made reproduction will agree that the tone of such instruments is of exceptional beauty.

This paper consists of a description of the structural features of two typical Italian instruments and a general discussion of the stringing and tuning of Italian harpsichords and virginals that is based on certain measurements of 33 instruments housed in various museums in the United States. To the curators and other staff members of these institutions I express my sincere gratitude for making it possible for me to measure valuable instruments entrusted to their care or for supplying similar information by mail.

The first type of instrument described below usually has been designated in modern books about musical instruments and in catalogs of instrument collections as a spinet, the term virginal being applied to the rectangular instruments having the keyboard along the long side. Since both of these types have basically the same arrangement of keyboard, wrest plank, hitch pins, strings and jacks, and since both types were known as virginals in 17th century England, it is logical to reserve the term spinet for another kind of instrument, namely the one with the wrest plank and tuning pins in front over the keyboard, and with the strings stretched diagonally. Such instruments were popular in England in the late 17th and early 18th centuries and were known in English as spinets during the period of their popularity. By using the term polygonal virginal we can distinguish, when necessary, the five sided Italian model from the rectangular instruments usually produced in northern Europe. Some rectangular virginals were made in Italy; one Flemish polygonal virginal, made by the elder Hans Ruckers in 1591, survives. Long instruments, resembling the grand piano in shape, are called harpsichords. Of course it is understood that both types of virginals as well as the spinet and the harpsichord were keyed chordophones employing the plucking action of jacks and plectra.

[Illustration: Figure 2. POLYGONAL VIRGINAL IN OUTER CASE... Continue reading book >>




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