|The clavichord is a very intimate, quiet instrument capable
of an expressiveness not possible on any other keyboard instrument. It
was the only keyboard instrument, until the successful development of the
piano, which was capable of touch-controlled dynamics. Its unique striking
mechanism makes it the only keyboard instrument able to vary the pitch
of a note through finger pressure. These dynamic and expressive qualities
made it a favorite instrument of J.S. and C. P. E. Bach. Its tuning stability,
ease of maintenance and portability compared to a harpsichord are added
The clavichord is the best keyboard instrument on which to acquire a
sensitive and finely controlled playing technique which transfers to harpsichord,
organ, fortepiano, and piano. A broad range of keyboard music is suitable
for clavichord playing, from Renaissance and early Baroque music, up through
the Bachs, to Mozart, Haydn and early Beethoven.
Clavichords have a longer history than harpsichords,
but without quite the extensive variety found in that instrument. There
are, however, several major types of clavichords, each with their own advantages
and disadvantages in size, weight, and suitability for various repertoire.
The vast majority of clavichords come shaped as a rectangular
case with the keyboard situated in one of the long sides. Sometimes on
the very small, portable clavichords one or two of the corners of the rectangular
case are "missing" so as to give a polygonal shape to the instrument.
The twentieth-century revival of the instrument also brought a new shape
by some makers: a wing-shaped form similar to a bentside spinet
Most clavichords are played with the hands, but for performing organ
music pedal clavichords also exist to be played with the feet.
Also for the sake of organ practice, clavichords are sometimes arranged
to be double-manual clavichords. Unlike harpsichords where two keyboards
can usefully be built into one case, with clavichords this means stacking
one clavichord on top of another.
There are two major types of clavichords: fretted and unfretted.
Fretted clavichords were the earliest type. Like a guitar or
violin these would sound several notes from the same set of strings by
striking the string in different places along its length. This approach
means an instrument with fewer strings to tune, a narrower and lighter
case, keys more equal in length bass to treble, less tension on the soundboard
so often a louder sound. The disadvantage comes if the music wants two
notes played at the same time which are on the same set of strings - only
the higher one can sound if both are pressed down simultaneously. The early
types of Renaissance and early Baroque clavichords had triple and
fretting (three and four notes played on the same pair of strings) which
did not pose a problem with music of that period, but, more chromatic later
music does present the problem of non-sounding notes. These types are suitable
if only the early repertoire is going to be played.
Double-fretted clavichords are the only type of fretted clavichord
worth considering if a wider repertoire is to be played. In this type notes
are paired with notes which are less usually played together, i.e. c with
c#, f with f#, etc. With this arrangement and a clean fingering technique
even most of Bach can be played.
For a more legato playing style and for the later Classical and early
Romantic literature an unfretted (sometimes called bundfrei)
clavichord will be needed. Here each note has its own pair of strings so
is completely independent of whatever else is being played. This also permits
more freedom in tuning since any temperament can be chosen at any time
merely by adjusting the tuning pins. (With fretted designs the tangents
must be bent closer or further apart in order to adjust the sizes of the
intervals of the fretted notes - not something which can be done accurately
with the same speed and ease of turning a tuning pin.) The disadvantages
of the unfretted design are that there will be more strings to tune, the
case will be broader because of more strings, and it will be much heavier
in order to have the strength to withstand the additional tension of those
Unlike the harpsichord’s possibility of having several choirs, or sets,
of strings at different pitches which can be chosen in a variety of combinations,
the clavichord cannot be switched back and forth. It almost always comes
with pairs of strings. This is for reasons of sound and touch: a
pair of strings will be somewhat louder than a single string, but more
importantly it will have a more complex and interesting timbre, a significantly
longer sustain, and will give a firmer, more easily controlled touch than
will a single string. These pairs of strings are usually at some designated
8’ pitch, which may be for a= 440, 415, 392, or something in between with
some designs. (A clavichord usually sounds best at a certain narrow range
of pitch, so should not be tuned higher or lower arbitrarily, for the sake
of its tone and possible broken strings.) Occasionally clavichords are
made at octave or quint pitch to make them smaller and more portable.
Some clavichords have 4’ bass strings added to the pair of 8’
strings to brighten and reinforce their sound. If a satisfying bass can’t
be designed without them, then they are probably worth the extra strings,
tuning, tension, complexity and weight.
Historically it was very rare for a clavichord to be single-strung
(just one string per note) for the reasons outlined above. Quite a few
modern designs have attempted to do this without sufficient understanding
of the drawbacks or how to compensate for the problems, resulting in instruments
which are difficult to play in tune, very quiet, and not very interesting
in sound. Unless these designs from the 1950’s and ‘60’s (and earlier)
can be knowledgeably modified, they will be very limited as a source of
Sometimes 16’ strings (sounding an octave below normal pitch)
will be found on "pedal clavichords" which are played with the feet as
on pedal sections of organs. These strings are not found on the usual clavichords
played with the hands.
Most clavichords were, and are, designed to be strung with brass
wire. It gives a good tone, volume and degree of yieldingness for control
of intonation. Historically some Portuguese and especially the later Swedish
clavichords were designed and built with most of the instrument strung
with iron wire. This choice can result in more volume and does give
a different tone than that of brass wire. It also results in more tension
and the need for a heavier case to withstand it. Iron and steel wire stretches
differently than brass wire, so the design needs to take this into account.
The old Swedish builders understood this very well; most of the 20th
century builders using steel wire did not.
Wound strings are often found on the bass notes of clavichords.
These give a fuller, brighter sound than using a heavier solid string of
equal mass and tension. The historical "open-wound" type probably is better
to use than the modern "close-wound" variety.
For the modern player planning to own just one clavichord, a range of
C-d3 (two octaves below middle c to two octaves and a second
above middle c) would likely be a minimum requirement. Most of J. S. Bach
can be played within this range. Extending the bass down to GG would permit
of Bach to be played ( and necessarily make the instrument longer).
A five-octave range, FF-f3, permits all the literature through
early Beethoven to be played. A few historical clavichords went higher
up to a3 or even c4, but there doesn’t seem to be
that much to gain to be worth stretching the design that far.
Historically clavichords were occasionally built with devices to change
the sound, such as tangents half-covered in leather which could be shifted
to muffle the sound, a "pantoleon" mechanism which would allow the strings
to keep vibrating after a key was released, etc.
None of these can be seen to significantly or economically add to the
musicality of a good instrument, and were perhaps inspired more by curiosity,
boredom or one-up-manship. A clavichord with a good dynamic range, an interesting
tone, and a responsive touch has all the musical resources needed to exploit
and explore the keyboard literature.
New Grove Early Keyboard Instruments, $14.95 available from W.W.
Norton, New York, 800/233-4830.
De Clavicordio - Proceedings of the International Clavichord Symposium.
Bernard Brauchli, ed., Regione Piemonte, Torino, 1994, 278 pp.
De Clavichordio II, Bernard Brauchli et al, ed., Musica Antica
a Magnano, 1995
(Both of the above De Clavicordio books are available from Harpsichord
Clearing House, 800/252-4304)
Boston Clavichord Society, P. O. Box 515, Waltham, MA 02254. E-mail:
email@example.com or woodward @binah.cc.brandeis.edu
British Clavichord Society, Mrs. Sheila Barnes, membership secretary,
3 East Castle Road, Edinburgh, EH10 5AP. Tel: +44-31-2298018
Deutsche Clavichord Societat, Herr Konrad Burr, schriftfuehrer, Scharrenbergstrasse
14, D-42699 Solingen. Tel: +49-212-329417
Het Nederlands Clavichord Genootschap, Gladiolenlaan 19, NL-2121 SM
Tel. & Fax: +31-23-5845690. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
International Centre for Clavichord Studies, Mrs. Susan Brauchli, co-ordinator,
48 Via Roma, I-13050 Magnano (BI) Italy. Tel.& Fax: +39-15-679260.
Japanese Clavichord Society, Mrs. Tomoko Miyamoto, 3-7-10 Jyomyoji,
Kamakura, Japan #248. Fax: +81-467-237616
Schweizerische Clavichord Gesellschaft, Case postale 1418, Ch-1001 Lausanne