Understanding the Role of the Harpsichord in Classical Music
Every instrument plays a role in classical music, including the harpsichord. Not all keyboard instruments are touch-sensitive like the piano. Your basic cheapo portable $75 electronic keyboard isn’t, for example. Nor was the piano’s predecessor, the harpsichord. On this keyboard, every note comes out at a medium volume, no matter how hard you hit the key.
Here’s why it’s worth getting to know the harpsichord.
Winning the Baroque gold medal
The harpsichord was the number-one keyboard instrument for music of the Baroque and early Classical periods, and you still often hear it played in music from those periods. A lot of the music of such great composers as Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi would be difficult to perform without it. It’s the veritable gold medalist of the Baroque Olympics.
Instead of sounding mellow or rich as a piano sounds, a harpsichord sounds — well, tinkly, twangy, or sometimes even crunchy. And for good reason: In a harpsichord, the strings are not hammered, but plucked.
Whereas the piano has very soft felt hammers to touch the strings, producing a variety of sounds, the harpsichord has little hooks (known as plectra) that rest near the strings. If you press a harpsichord key, the corresponding hook (or plectrum) reaches over and plucks the appropriate string, like a fingernail twanging an archery bow.
Hearing the harpsichord
Check this out to hear a prelude and fugue by Bach, played on the harpsichord (Track 02).
If you particularly love the harpsichord, here are some more pieces you simply must hear:
Bach: Concerto in D Minor for Harpsichord and String Orchestra
François Couperin: Les barricades mystérieuses
George Frideric Handel: Suite in E major, G 145-148 (includes delightful variations on “The Harmonious Blacksmith”)
Domenico Scarlatti: 550 sonatas (They’re all great. Take your pick.)