Historic vs. Modern

The harpsichord damper is an item which has been in plain sight for years, but which seems to have been given little thought by modern builders and performers as an item to be studied with an “historic” eye.Indeed, as Dr. Grant O’Brien points out in his superb book on the Ruckers harpsichord builders, “Virtually all seventeenth and eighteenth century harpsichords that I have seen with apparently original jacks have dampers with sloping sides.”1, yet, “virtually all modern builders use flag dampers with a horizontal lower surface.”2

Even without the luck of finding original dampers still in their jacks, there is still evidence enough in the jacks themselves to indicate the approximate shape of damper originally used.Since before the string can be damped, the plectrum needs room to move around and under the string during the jack’s descent, a horizontal damper obviously need to be placed somewhat above the level of the tip of the plectrum.Historic jacks, unlike too many current ones, have plectra angled upward 8 -20o referenced to the jack body’s front.This significantly raises the tip of the plectrum above the level of its base, simultaneously raising the level at which a horizontal damper would need to be set, to perhaps 1/8” (3mm) above the plectrum slot in the tongue.Yet historic jacks had damper openings which descended at least to the plectrum’s base, and in many cases up to 1/8” (3mm) below it.Either the old builders didn’t mind doing a lot of extra hand work for no reason, or they used dampers that needed to be set lower than our horizontal flag dampers.

Besides the old dampers found and the evidence in the jack construction itself, there is still other historical evidence that the modern flag damper shape was not used historically. Plate XIV of the “Lutherie” section of Diderot’s Encyclopedie (1751-1778) for example, clearly shows harpsichord dampers with a curved shape.Yet this historical evidence has usually been dismissed by modern harpsichord scholars as an “engraver’s error”, or, because the researcher could see no reason for this shape and decided they would be difficult to make this way, has implied that the evidence be ignored!In fact, the exact shape, crispness and positioning is much less critical for the historical damper shape than it is for the modern flag damper shape.If consideration is given to the cloth used, the cutting instruments available and the frequency of playing at that time it might become rather obvious why the modern flag damper did not become the historical shape of choice.

The modern damper shape, coupled with the fact that many current builders use a cloth significantly stiffer than the type used historically, leaves us in an inauthentic condition that presents problems which historic players did not experience, takes away sonic possibilities which they did enjoy, and contributes much to the harpsichord’s reputation for being “fussy”.

Most people familiar with harpsichords nowadays are also familiar with the sight of dampers with little notches in them above the strings, and with dampers which have curled.The notch is made when the flat, bottom edge of the damper comes down on a vigorously vibrating string.The stiffer and more unmoving the cloth, the more concentrated is the area which has to absorb the string’s energy.When a damper is set too low in its slot, the jack ends up hanging from the string by its damper.Depending on the stiffness of the cloth and the weight of the jack this often results in the lower corner of the damper curling up as the jack slowly sinks down to the more solid support of the keylever.Often this distortion becomes set, so that even when the damper is repositioned in its slot the damper remains misshapen, making it difficult to adjust it to damp in both the on and the off positions of the register.

The long-ignored historic damper shape does not encounter these problems because it does not trap all that energy in a head-on collision, but deflects and absorbs it through its shape and compliance.The sloped shape (either slanted in a damper slot or curved as a “mouse ear” damper in the oval hole of a Rucker’s style jack) contacts the string gradually in both planes of vibration as it descends, rather than abruptly in only the vertical direction.This gradual engagement is particularly helpful with heavy bass strings, and with the widely moving muselar virginal strings, where the string energy against a flag damper can either knock the damper out of position or cause the whole jack to be lifted and rattled in its register mortise. 

Where strings are arranged in close pairs, such as virginals, spinets, and 2x8’s of grands, a sloped shape greatly reduces the probability of a damper interfering with the motion of a neighboring string:

A grand harpsichord using modern flag dampers must have its dampers very carefully adjusted so that they do not interfere with nearby strings yet all stay on their own strings when the register is shifted off.If a damper slides off its string and the jack drops slightly, then when the register is shifted “on” the leading corner of the damper can catch on its string and cause resistance to the movement, which can cause a slight springback of the register when the lever is released by the fingers.This causes inconsistent plucking across the register.This is not a problem with the historic damper.The very slight forward pressure the historic damper does exert on the string is just enough to ensure the jack will always sit back in its slot for a consistent start to the pluck.This is a definite advantage when trying to create a consistent touch where there is any looseness in the fit of the jacks in their register mortises.

To adjust a flag damper properly, the jack must be removed from the instrument and the damper moved up or down carefully in its slot, making sure to maintain the lower edge horizontal, and to not move the damper in or out to change the relationship to its string and its neighbors.In contrast, the historically shaped damper can usually be adjusted with the jack still in the instrument by grasping the topof it and tilting its sloping edge closerto or further from its string.(It takes significant misadjustment to get it to interfere with a neighboring string.) This is much quicker than adjusting a flag damper.

When a register of jacks with historic dampers is shifted off, the dampers lose contact with the strings.This leaves the strings free to vibrate sympathetically, filling in the abrupt plucked sound with a sustaining shimmer.The degree of this depends on the configuration and resonance of the particular harpsichord.

An undamped 4’ choir will not receive much energy from the 8’ bridge’s strings, and the extra resonance will be apparent, but not at all obtrusive to most ears.3This fact permits the sloped damper shape to be easily used on a 4’ register, thereby eliminating the micro-adjusting necessary to make sure that the 4’ flag dampers stay on their strings when the register is off and yet do not interfere with overhead 8’ strings when in the on position.In fact, the very close string spacing found in most original 18th century French harpsichords, including treble 4’ strings lying almost directly under 8’ strings, isstrong evidence that this sloped shape was the one used, and that there was never any intention that the 4’ strings be damped when not playing.This added shimmer would have been part of the normal 8’ sound.To historic ears, I believe, the 8’ might very well have sounded too “dry” without it.(Somewhat like the difference in damping between Viennese and English fortepianos, if you were English perhaps).

Since, unlike the separated 8’ and 4’ choirs, the two 8’ choirs share the same bridge, the transfer of vibrating energy from one playing choir to the other unplaying choir is maximized, and the sympathetic “haze” can be quite marked.In a double-manual harpsichord it is quite easy to play whichever 8’ alone one wishes without disengaging the other 8’.Since most 20th century harpsichords have not revealed much useful difference in sound between the 4’ played with the lower 8’ and the 4’ played with the upper 8’4, and since rarely is the 4’ played solo,5the current performance practice seems to be not to use the lower 8’ register lever, except possibly for tuning.It has always seemed strange to this builder that the French (and others) went to the trouble to install a register lever easily accessible to the player, in the keywell, only to have the (modern) players never use it.Aside from the two possible reasons for the use of the lever alluded to above, I believe a major reason for its presence is to access the sympathetic haze available with the historically shaped damper:the upper 8’ played with an undamped lower 8’.The effect can be wonderful, depending on the type of music and the overall resonance of the instrument.Rapidly modulating music on a very lively instrument may result in clashing tonalities, but, wisely chosen, the effect can be a very useful addition to the resources of the upper manual.The fact that the historic damper which allows this possibility is also easier to keep in good regulation and damps better are additional advantages.

A single-manual with two 8’ choirs does not have the same possibilities of controlling this sympathetic effect as does a double-manual, which very well may explain 1.) why the Flemish preferred the 1x8’, 1x4’ disposition,6 2.) why the French seemed to have made so relatively few singles, 3.) why the Italians usually had no convenient way to turn a register off, and, perhaps 4.) partly why Fleischer preferred using two sets of jacks on one choir of 8’ strings to get the two 8’ sounds on his 1710 single (see footnote 3).

Plastic jacks, because of their slick surfaces and a desire to keep horizontal dampers from being knocked out of position by the strings, usually have damper arms which grip with enough tension (and/or teeth) that they need a fairly strong, hard cloth for ease of installation.But these harder cloths with their subsequent notching, curling, and increased nodal ringing have not helped the harpsichord’s maintenance reputation.

A sloping or curved damper of a relatively hard cloth will not work as well as one made of a soft cloth.The softer material will absorb the energy over a larger area of itself by flexing and twisting around.It is less critical about being positioned perfectly.Soft cloth is easily gripped sufficiently by the rough surface of a saw-cut damper slot in a wooden jack.Its resiliency makes it less likely, compared to the hard cloth, to have the string knock it out of position, or form a notch or a curl.

Going forward by going backward

To try the historic damper shape, a flag damper can be trimmed to a sloping shape and lowered in its slot.If the results aren’t agreeable, the damper can be turned upside down to return to the familiar horizontal bottom edge.If you do like what you find and the damper cloth is a little hard to get the full benefits of the historic shape, you may want to eventually cut a new set of dampers with a more resilient cloth.

For spinets and virginals, and grands with only one set of jacks, switching to the historic damper is really all advantages with no drawbacks.

The same pretty much applies to single manual grands with 1x8, 1x4 except for the slight, I believe, possibility that some ears may refuse to accept the unfamiliar 4’ “haze” on the 8’ solo sound.Try removing the 4’ jacks first and playing the 8’ to assess the effect for yourself before starting to modify dampers.

For the usual configuration of double-manuals, changing the 4’ dampers and the upper 8’ dampers should present no problems (check the 4’ shimmer effect first, as in the paragraph above, just in case).Whether you modify the lower 8’ dampers will depend upon how the instrument is normally used and whether it has a buff stop on the lower 8’.

a.)If it is not normally used with the lower 8’ turned off then there will be no problems with modifying the lower 8’ dampers, and an additional timbre will be gained for the upper manual.

b.)If the instrument is sometimes registered with the lower 8’ off and the sympathetic haze might interfere with the sound desired, turning “on” a lower manual buff stop will essentially stop the sympathetic resonance, giving additional choices of timbre for with or without.

c.)If there is no lower 8’ buff to have it both ways, as above, then before converting the lower 8’ dampers, remove the lower 8’ jacks and try the other registration possibilities with those strings now undamped.Play a variety of music.If the shimmer is just a bit too long or strong try putting back some of the lower 8’ bass jacks with their horizontal dampers, a few at a time, and play some more.If the sympathetic resonances do not disturb the registrations which have the lower 8’ off, then go ahead and modify as many of the lower 8’ dampers as sounds good to you.

(If your double-manual harpsichord has a buff stop on the upper manual 8’ and you modify the lower 8’ dampers and turn that register off, you will find that the upper 8’ with buff will give a sound much less pizzicato than usual and give a much better imitation of a lute [“lute stop”], due to the added fill-in resonance of the lower 8’ strings.)

As mentioned earlier in the historical context, single-manual grands with 2x8’ seem to present more of a problem for the historic damper.Horizontal flag dampers might be the solution to this situation or it might be useful to have the added haze on just one choir so that the resource to the familiar, drier sound is still available with the other choir.Remove each register of jacks alternately and try a variety of music to find out 1.) if you like the effect, and 2.)which register you prefer dry and which “wet”.As mentioned above, the effect can be reduced by keeping flag dampers on a number of the bass jacks.If the instrument has a buff stop, it would be advantageous to use the sloped dampers on that same set of strings, as discussed above.

The slope of the damper can vary depending on the specific conditions, but if the sympathetic shimmer is an objective then the angle must be at least sufficient to allow the string full freedom of motion when the register is in the off position.Straight or

curved cuts may be used:

If, unlike the illustrations, the plectra in your jacks do not point up, it may take a little more care to get the shape you need and still intersect the string where it needs to, but do try.(The jack with a horizontal plectrum is another 20th century invention which has given us another set of playing and maintenance problems, but that is another discussion.)

I believe the historic damper is a worthy addition to our revival of historic performance practices.Even if the resulting sympathetic enforcement in grands sounds unusual at first to some people, at the very least the improvement in harpsichord regulation and fussiness will be appreciated by everybody involved with the instrument.

1.Grant O’Brien, Ruckers:a harpsichord and virginal building tradition.(Cambridge:Cambridge University Press 1990), p. 222.

2.Ibid., p. 223.

3.Listen to the Handel Suites recorded by Colin Tilney originally on LP, recently re-released on CD.On Disc 1 he uses a 1710 Fleischer single which has no dampers on the 4’ at all, so whenever he plays the 8’ solo, the 4’ strings vibrate sympathetically.(Disc 2 uses a 1728 Zell double).Archiv Galleria 427 170-2.

4.Which is not to say there shouldn’t be significant differences of effect.

5.Almost never, but perhaps something is different about the sound of our 4’, or our taste.

6.O’Brien, op. cit., p. 223.

last revised 3-05-01