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1977 clavichord by Keith Hill, op. 44 (opus 28 reworked)
Keyboard instrument
Other names it: Clavicordo
Hornbostel-Sachs classification 314.122-4-8
(Simple chordophone with keyboard sounded by tangents)
Developed Early 14th century

The clavichord is a European stringed keyboard instrument known from the late Medieval, through the Renaissance, Baroque and Classical eras. Historically, it was widely used as a practice instrument and as an aid to composition, not being loud enough for larger performances. The clavichord produces sound by striking brass or iron strings with small metal blades called tangents. Vibrations are transmitted through the bridge(s) to the soundboard. The name is derived from the Latin word clavis, meaning "key" (associated with more common clavus, meaning "nail, rod, etc.") and chorda (from Greek χορδή) meaning "string, especially of a musical instrument".

From his very childhood HANDEL had discovered such a strong propensity to Music, that his father, who always intended him for the study of the Civil Law, had reason to be alarmed. Perceiving that this inclination still increased, he took every method to oppose it. He strictly forbad him to meddle with any musical instrument; nothing of that kind was suffered to remain in the house, nor was he ever permitted to go to any other, where such kind of furniture was in use. All this caution and art, instead of restraining, did but augment his passion. He had found means to get a little clavichord privately convey’d to a room at the top of the house. To this room he constantly stole when the family was asleep. He had made some progress before Music had been prohibited, and by his assiduous practice at hours of rest, had made such farther advances, as, tho’ not attended to at that time, were no slight prognostications of his future greatness.

—John Mainwaring, Memoirs of the Life of the late G. F. Handel, 1760.


History and use

Clavichord in Bach's birthplace in Eisenach[1]

The clavichord was invented in the early fourteenth century.[2][3]In 1504, the German poem Der Minne Regeln mentions the terms clavicimbalum (a term used mainly for the harpsichord) and clavichordium, designating them as the best instruments to accompany melodies.

The "Lépante" clavichord,[4] Musée de la Musique, Paris

It was very popular from the 16th century to the 18th century, but mainly flourished in German-speaking lands, Scandinavia, and the Iberian Peninsula in the latter part of this period. It had fallen out of use by 1850. In the late 1890s, Arnold Dolmetsch revived clavichord construction and Violet Gordon-Woodhouse, among others, helped to popularize the instrument. Although most of the instruments built before the 1730s were small (four octaves, four feet long), the latest instruments were built up to seven feet long with a six octave range.

Today clavichords are played primarily by Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical music enthusiasts. They attract many interested buyers, and are manufactured worldwide. A modern clavichord can range in price from $2,400 to as much as $20,000. There are now numerous clavichord societies around the world, and some 400 recordings of the instrument have been made in the past 70 years. Leading modern exponents of the instrument include Derek Adlam, Christopher Hogwood, Richard Troeger, and Miklos Spányi, and fine modern instruments are widely available. Some modern makers include: Dick Verwolf in the Netherlands, Peter Bavington and Karin Richter in Great Britain, Joris Potvlieghe in Belgium, Thomas Steiner in Switzerland, and Ronald Haas, Owen Daly, Charles Wolff, David Jensen, and Andrew Lagerquist in the United States.

Rock music

The clavichord has also gained attention in other genres of music, like rock in the form of the clavinet, which is essentially an electric clavichord which uses a magnetic pickup to provide a signal for amplification. A clavinet played through an instrument amplifier with guitar effect pedals is often associated with funky, disco-infused 1970s rock.

Guy Sigsworth has played clavichord in a rock setting with Bjork, notably on the studio recording of "All Is Full Of Love".

Tori Amos also uses the instrument on "Little Amsterdam" from the album Boys For Pele as well as on the song "Smokey Joe" from her 2007 album American Doll Posse. And in 1976 Oscar Peterson played (with Joe Pass on acoustic guitar) songs from Porgy And Bess on the clavichord. Keith Jarrett also recorded an album entitled Book of Ways (1987) in which he plays a series of clavichord improvisations. The Beatles' "For No One" (1966) features Paul McCartney playing the clavichord. Rick Wakeman plays the clavichord in the track "The Battle" from the album Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

Structure and action

Schematic diagram of clavichord mechanism: A/B. Keys. 1A/1B. Tangents. 2A/2B. Keylevers. 3. String. 4. Soundboard. 5. Bridge-pin, next to tuning peg. 6. Damping felt, next to hitch-pin. (Note that the keylevers are perpendicular to the strings.) [5]

In the clavichord, strings run transversely from the hitchpin rail at the left-hand end to tuning pegs on the right. Towards the right end they pass over a curved wooden bridge. The action is simple, with the keys being levers with a small brass tangent, a small piece of metal similar in shape and size to the head of a flat-bladed screwdriver, at the far end. The strings, which are usually of brass, or else a combination of brass and iron, are usually arranged in pairs, like a lute or mandolin. When the key is pressed, the tangent strikes the strings above, causing them to sound in a similar fashion to the hammering technique on a guitar. Unlike in a piano action, the tangent does not rebound from the string; rather, it stays in contact with the string as long as the key is held, acting as both the nut and as the initiator of sound. The volume of the note can be changed by striking harder or softer, and the pitch can also be affected by varying the force of the tangent against the string (known as Bebung). When the key is released, the tangent loses contact with the string and the vibration of the string is silenced by strips of damping cloth.

The action of the clavichord is unique among all keyboard instruments in that one part of the action simultaneously initiates the sound vibration while at the same time defining the endpoint of the vibrating string, and thus its pitch. Because of this intimate contact between the player's hand and the production of sound, the clavichord has been referred to as the most intimate of keyboard instruments. Despite its many (serious) limitations, including extremely low volume, it has considerable expressive power, the player being able to control attack, duration, volume, and even provide certain subtle effects of swelling of tone and a type of vibrato unique to the clavichord.


Large five-octave unfretted clavichord by Paul Maurici, after J.A. Hass

Since the string vibrates from the bridge only as far as the tangent, multiple keys with multiple tangents can be assigned to the same string. This is called fretting. Early clavichords frequently had many notes played on each string, even going so far as the keyed monochord — an instrument with only one string — though most clavichords were triple- or double-fretted. Since only one note can be played at a time on each string, the fretting pattern is generally chosen so that notes which are rarely heard together (such as C and C#) share a string pair. The advantages to this system compared with unfretted instruments (see below) include relative ease of tuning (with around half as many strings to keep in tune), greater volume (though still not really enough for use in chamber music), and a clearer, more direct sound. Among the disadvantages: temperament could not be re-set without bending the tangents; and playing required a further refinement of touch, since notes sharing a single string played in quick succession needed to be slightly separated to avoid a disagreeable deadening of the sound, potentially disturbing a legato line.

Fretted clavichord, copy of an unsigned instrument conserved in Namur, Belgium. The way the same string pair is used for several notes is clearly visible in the full size image.

Some clavichords have been built with a single pair of strings for each note. The first known reference to one was by Johann Speth in 1693 and the earliest such extant signed and dated clavichord was built in 1716 by Johann Michael Heinitz. Such instruments are referred to as unfretted whereas instruments using the same strings for several notes are called fretted. Among the advantages to unfretted instruments are flexibility in tuning (the temperament can be easily altered) and the ability to play any music exactly as written without concern for "bad" notes. Disadvantages include a smaller volume, even though many or most unfretted instruments tend to be significantly larger than fretted instruments; and many more strings to keep in tune. Unfretted instruments tend to have a sweeter, less incisive tone due to the greater load on the bridge resulting from the greater number of strings, though the large, late (early 19th century) Swedish clavichords tend to be the loudest of any of the historic clavichords.

Pedal clavichord

J. Verscheure Reynvaan: engraving of an eighteenth century pedal clavichord

While clavichords were typically single manual instruments, they could be stacked to provide multiple keyboards. With the addition of a pedal clavichord, which included a pedal keyboard for the lower notes, a clavichord could be used to practice organist repertoire. In the era of pipe organs which used hand-pumped blowers, and of churches which were only heated during church services, organists used pedal harpsichords and pedal clavichords as practice instruments (see also: pedal piano).[6] There is speculation that some works written for organ may have been intended for pedal clavichord. An interesting case is made by Speerstra (2004) that Bach's "Eight Little Preludes and Fugues", now thought to be spurious, may actually be authentic. The keyboard writing seems unsuited to organ, but Speerstra argues that they are idiomatic on the pedal clavichord. As Speerstra and Williams (2003) also note, the compass of the keyboard parts of Bach's six organ trio sonatas BWV 525–530 rarely go below the tenor C, so could have been played on a single manual pedal clavichord, by moving the left hand down an octave, a customary practice in the 18th century. Various modern copies have been made of surviving pedal clavichords, such as the one in the Instrumenten-Museum in the University of Leipzig built in the 1760s by the organ-builder Johann David Gerstenberg from Geringswalde in Saxony.


Gerard Dou, Woman at the Clavichord

Much of the musical repertoire written for harpsichord and organ from the period circa 1400–1800 can be played on the clavichord; however, it does not have enough (unamplified) volume to participate in chamber music, with the possible exception of providing accompaniment to a soft baroque flute, recorder, or single singer. J. S. Bach's son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was a great proponent of the instrument, and most of his German contemporaries regarded it as a central keyboard instrument, for performing, teaching, composing and practicing. Among recent clavichord recordings, those by Christopher Hogwood (The Secret Bach, The Secret Handel, and, most recently, The Secret Mozart), break new ground. In his liner notes, Hogwood points out that these composers would typically have played the clavichord in the privacy of their homes.

See also


  1. ^ Kottick 1997, p. 85–87. The Bachhaus contains 4 clavichords, including an early 19th century pedal clavichord by Johann Georg Marckert.
  2. ^ Brauchli 1998
  3. ^ Jeans 1951
  4. ^ Catalogue entry for the Lépante clavichord, Cité de la Musique, Paris (in French)
  5. ^ Brauchli 1998, p. 1–10. The introduction to this book contains far more detailed and accurate diagrams, labeled by the technical names of the different parts of the clavichord.
  6. ^ The use of the pedal clavichord as a practice instrument is discussed by Friedrich Griepenkerl in the 1844 foreword to Volume I of the first edition of the complete organ works of J.S. Bach; see Riemenschneider 1950.


  • Brauchli, Bernard (1998), The Clavichord, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521630673  
  • Jeans, Susi (1951), The Pedal Clavichord and Other Practice Instruments of Organists, Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association, 77th Sess., 1950–1951, Oxford University Press,  
  • Kottick, Edward L. (1997), Early Keyboard Instruments in European Museums, Indiana University Press, ISBN 0253332397  
  • Riemenschneider, Albert (1950), Preface and translations of forewords by Friedrich Griepenkerl to Organ works of J.S. Bach, 2067, C.F. Peters  
  • Speerstra, Joel (2004), Bach and the Pedal Clavichord: an Organist's Guide, University of Rochester Press, ISBN 1-58046-135-2  
  • Williams, Peter (2003), The Organ Music of J.S. Bach (2nd ed.), Cambridge University Press, pp. 4–6, ISBN 0521891159  

External links

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010
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From LoveToKnow 1911

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Simple English

A Clavichord is a musical instrument like a small keyboard which was very popular for many years, especially in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.


To play a note on the clavichord a key is pressed down. This makes the other end of the key (inside the instrument) comes up (like a see-saw). That end has a thin metal blade called a "tangent" which hits the string. The tangent stays on the string until the player takes his finger off the key.


On some clavichords many of the strings share more than one note. For example: a C and C sharp might share the same string. The tangent of the C sharp will be slightly nearer the bridge than that of the C. This is the part of the string that vibrates. So C and C sharp could not be played together. Clavichords like these were called “fretted”. If each string had its own note it was called “unfretted”. A fretted clavichord was smaller and cheaper to make as fewer strings were needed.

On a piano, once a note has been played, the sound cannot be changed any more. All the player can do is hold it down and allow the note to fade in sound. On a clavichord, the player can shake the key up and down and this will make the tangent push the string up and down a little, making it tighter or looser. This was called “Bebung” in German. It is like vibrato on a string instrument.


The clavichord is a very quiet instrument. It was not suitable for playing with other instruments because it was so quiet. But it sounds very beautiful in slow, expressive music. It was used as a practice instrument by harpsichord players, or by organists who wanted to practise at home instead of in a (often very cold) church. They were so small that they could be lifted up and put on a table. They could be put one on top of another so that an organist could practise music written for a two-manual organ. Sometimes they even had pedals for organists to practise their pedalling.


Many German composers like Johann Sebastian Bach wrote music for the “Clavier”. This meant any keyboard instrument: harpsichord, clavichord or organ. The player could choose which they wanted to use.

When the piano suddenly became popular – in the 1760s and 1770s – people started to forget about harpsichords and clavichords. Today a few people make harpsichords and clavichords again so that those who want to can play Renaissance and Baroque music - the music from when the clavichord was popular.

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