The Harpsichord

Everything you need to know about this venerable instrument – and about a beautiful one from Hamburg

The harpsichord is normally never far away when music from the Baroque period is concerned. Its light, convivial sound is characteristic of a whole musical era, and sets the tempo in a number of early music ensembles. That was not always the case over its long history: for a time, the harpsichord’s successor, the piano, made it look very old and superfluous – and it was almost forgotten. Then, with the revival of Baroque music in the twentieth century, the harpsichord made an impressive comeback, and even featured in the pop music of the 1960s. Today, the harpsichord is a vibrant instrument with a bright future thanks to young, talented musicians.

Cembalo © Screenshot

Georg Philipp Telemann: Chaconne (Modéré)


The history of the harpsichord reaches back to the early Renaissance, with the first instruments built around the beginning of the fifteenth century. Between 1500 and 1750, the harpsichord – alongside the organ – was the most important keyboard instrument, and almost all the major composers of the age wrote works for it.


The harpsichord was not the first keyboard instrument. The organ has been around since the age of antiquity, and the clavichord, in which the strings are struck by small metal blades, was also invented before the harpsichord. And yet the harpsichord was a real innovation. Before its invention, strings had only ever been plucked by fingers (e.g. the psalterium, a kind of lute), and this was the first time the plucking method was transferred to a keyboard instrument. When you press a key on the harpsichord, a jack springs up and plucks the metal strings with a quill. These quills are thorn-shaped plectrums – and were made from real quills in times past.

Fleischer-Cembalo © Lukas Engelhardt


In the beginning, the most important centres for the harpsichord were the major Italian cities and the Flemish region around the trade city of Antwerp. Over time, however, more and more harpsichords were built in Germany, initially by organ builders as a side-line, then increasingly also by specialists. Hamburg played an important role in this development. The city was a vibrant cultural centre for northern Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries. A large number of instrument builders worked here, as did some of the most important composers of the age, and in 1678 the city became home to Germany’s first public opera house at Gänsemarkt.

Hamburg im Jahr 1681
Hamburg im Jahr 1681 © Maler: Joachim Luhn


The Hamburg instrument builder Carl Conrad Fleischer was born in 1679 – around the same time as the three composers who would shape the history of German Baroque music: Georg Philipp Telemann (1681), Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Friedrich Handel (both born in 1685). An exciting period for music, then – and a period in which instrument building was a highly respected profession.

Carl Conrad Fleischer’s harpsichords were already in great demand during his lifetime – today, they are priceless. One particularly beautiful instrument built in 1716 is housed in the Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte. The museum’s director purchased the harpsichord at a New York auction in 1978, finally bringing an instrument that had long been in the US back to its home city.

Fleischer-Cembalo © Lukas Engelhardt

The 300-year-old harpsichord is still sometimes played at concerts. The instrument’s resonance board, keyboard and mechanism are all original, so it sounds just as Fleischer designed it. However, the ornamental painting has undergone changes over the course of the centuries.


For a long time, the harpsichord was the favoured keyboard instrument of major composers: apart from the organ, there was no alternative. As a result, there is an extensive body of works for the instrument. Antonio Vivaldi in Italy, Jean-Philippe Rameau in France and Henry Purcell in England – all the major composers of the age wrote pieces for the harpsichord.

Johann Sebastian Bach had a reputation as a true harpsichord virtuoso. He wrote several concertos for the harpsichord, and he even composed one for four harpsichords. Bach also composed a number of the solo works that are now usually played on piano for the harpsichord originally, for example the famous Goldberg Variations.

Mahan Esfahani spielt Bachs Goldberg-Variationen
Mahan Esfahani spielt Bachs Goldberg-Variationen © Deutsche Grammophon

The Iranian musician Mahan Esfahani has recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations on the harpsichord, »allowing the crystal coolness of the music to come to the fore« (SWR).

Das Alte Werk

Music from the treasure chests of centuries long past: the concert series at the Laeiszhalle.


Despite the harpsichord’s great popularity, it had one major weakness compared to most other instruments. No matter whether the player laid into the keys forcefully or brushed them with great tenderness, the sound produced by the instrument always remained at the same volume – the mechanism underlying the instrument made it impossible to develop a dynamic playing style. Composers sometimes attempted to circumvent this limitation by indicating points in the score at which musicians could use gesture and body language to give their playing the required expressiveness.

Things would soon change. In 1698, the Italian instrument maker Bartolomeo Cristofori developed a new instrument and called it »arpicembalo che fà il piano e il forte« (harpsichord that can play loudly and quietly). In some languages the name »pianoforte« is still used to this day, in other languages it has been shortened to »piano«.

Fleischer-Cembalo © Lukas Engelhardt


This new instrument, with its dynamic hammer mechanism, gradually replaced the harpsichord. In Hamburg in 1788, Bach’s son C. P. E. Bach wrote a concerto in which he placed the »old« harpsichord and the »new« pianoforte side by side as solo parts.

But the harpsichord was increasingly made redundant, as clearly demonstrated by Ludwig van Beethoven’s famous piano sonatas. While the first few sonatas of the 32 were published as pieces »for harpsichord or pianoforte« (in order not to lose the custom of old harpsichord lovers), by the time Sonata No. 29 was published, at the latest, the pianoforte is the only instrument mentioned. The piece is still known as the »Hammerklavier Sonata« (Pianoforte Sonata) to this day. The golden era of the harpsichord was over.

Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 29

Notenausgabe der Hammerklavier-Sonate
Notenausgabe der Hammerklavier-Sonate © UMG


Many years would pass before musicians began to gradually rediscover an interest in the harpsichord and other instruments of the Baroque period. The first associations of early music were established at the beginning of the 20th century, and this movement gathered momentum after the Second World War. Large numbers of musicians turned their backs on the ossified music scene, and started researching the forgotten Baroque repertoire – doing so in a very practice-oriented way, using historic instruments to find the »original sound« of times past. The practice of »historically-informed performance«, which is still popular today, brought the harpsichord back onto concert stages.

Perhaps the greatest champion of the harpsichord’s revival was the Polish musician Wanda Landowska, who died in 1959. The French piano maker Pleyel built a special harpsichord model for Landowska, and this soon went into serial production. Great composers began writing new pieces for the instrument: Manuel de Falla dedicated a Concerto for Harpsichord and Orchestra to Landowska in 1926, and Francis Poulenc did the same in 1927.

Manuel de Falla: Concerto for Harpsichord (1926)

Manuel de Falla
Manuel de Falla © Real Academia de la Historia


In the 1960s, this new enthusiasm for the rediscovered sounds of the harpsichord spilled over into the world of pop music. The Beatles’ producer George Martin was a fan of the instrument and he played it on the 1967 song »Fixing a Hole«.

Beatles: Fixing a Hole (1967)

The Beatles
The Beatles © Screenshot

The Beatles’ oeuvre also features one »fake« harpsichord. The solo in »In My Life« sounds a little like a harpsichord, but George Martin actually played the part on the piano. The secret behind the special sound? When recording, the tempo was too high for Martin and he had the tapes running at half speed so that he could take his time playing the solo – this recording was later played back at the original tempo.

The Beatles: In My Life

The Beatles: Albumcover »Rubber Soul«
The Beatles: Albumcover »Rubber Soul« © The Beatles / Youtube

The Yardbirds also embraced the retro trend. Not only did the harpsichord provide the right flavour for their hit »For Your Love« in 1965, the band also filmed a music video to match, in which they gather around the harpsichord dressed in Baroque style, with feathered hats and knight’s helmets.

Yardbirds: For Your Love (1965)

The Yardbirds
The Yardbirds © Screenshot

Tom Greenwood recently wrote in The Believer about the significance of the harpsichord in 1960s pop music, and published a very exciting Spotify playlist called Harpsychordia to go with it:


»Jean Rondeau is probably the best thing that could have happened to the harpsichord«, concluded ARD (the joint organisation of Germany’s regional public-service broadcasters) recently. As one of the most exciting harpsichord players of our time, he gives the classic harpsichord repertoire new vibrancy – and builds a bridge to the present era with his own compositions and jazz improvisations. As the Telemann Festival’s Artist in Residence, he performed works by the great Baroque master in Hamburg.

Jean Rondeau
Jean Rondeau © Screenshot

Text: Francois Kremer, last updated: 15 Nov 2017

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