September 29, 2013: A Little Harpsichord Gone Astray

September 29, 2013 11:18

“Les regrets“ (“Regrets“) François Couperin (1668-1733)

“L’âme en peine“ (“The soul in sorrow“) François Couperin (1668-1733)

About a month ago I was at the UCR music library where the head librarian has had to shoo me out at closing time too many times. We got to talking and the subject of harpsichords came up. Says she: "I've got one in my garage that's completely out of whack and you can just have it if you want." "I'll be right over!"

It’s a Zuckerman from the 1970s, a kit put together by someone who made some ‘interesting choices’. It took a few days to straighten out the poor thing (including someone decided to use weather stripping where felt is supposed to go! Yikes!). But it's playing fairly well now, so let's have a harpsichord prelude!

The harpsichord was the keyboard king from about 1400 until about 1750 — about 350 years, longer than the piano has even been in existence. (The piano was invented in 1711, but it took a few decades to get the kinks out and get it into widespread use.) The harpsichord works by plucking the strings whereas the piano strikes them with felt-covered hammers. Also, the harpsichord has very low string tension — about 20 lbs per string or so, vs. the piano at about 200 lbs per string. So a harpsichord is much like a big guitar with a keyboard at one end.

The two pieces for the prelude are by Couperin, one of the leading French Baroque composers of his day — composed for the harpsichord of course!


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