XXXII. The Empress Harpsichord.details

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XXXII. The Empress Harpsichord.

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A harpsichord of the largest size is this, the culmination of an instrument that had remained in use for nearly three hundred years, but, at the time this one was made, was about to be replaced by the pianoforte. This fine harpsichord bears the joint name of Shudi and Broadwood, London. The instrument is numbered 691, and the books of the original firm show that it was made for the Empress Maria Theresa, and shipped on the 20th of August, 1773. Shudi had established his business as a harpsichord-maker about 1732. Through Handel’s friendship he became patronized by Frederick, Prince of Wales, father of George III, and was permitted to use the sign of “The Plume of Feathers” for his house. He was honored with a commission from Maria Theresa’s old enemy, Frederick the Great, to make two harpsichords for the “Neues Palais” at Potsdam, where they are still [1891] to be seen.

It may be said of Shudi and Jacob Kirkman, once fellow apprentices, and afterwards competitors, that they left the harpsichords a more powerful instrument, and more varied in effect, by means of stops and registers, than it had ever been before. Shudi was the inventor of the Venetian swell (patented 1769), which he intended for the harpsichords. When the patent expired this contrivance was generally adopted in England, and becoming transferred to the organ, has remained, ever since, an important means of effect in that instrument. The figure in the plate shows the Venetian swell open, as it would be when the right pedal is put down. There are four registers and six stops in this instrument. Taking them in their order from left to right, we find on the left-hand side, the “lute,” the hacks or plectra of which twang the first unison string, near the wrest-plank bridge, andgive a more reedy sound than is obtained from the usual striking-places; the “octave,” which, as its name imdicates, acts upon strings tuned an octave higher, which are of shorter length, ad lie below the others; and the “buff” (sometimes called “harp”) stop, which partly mutes the second unison strings throughout, by the contact of small pads of leather. On the right-hand side are the first and second rows of unison strings. The upper key-board has the first unison and lute only, wile all the registers come under the player’s control on the lower key-board. The machine stop, at the left hand of the key-boards, permits an agreeable change to lute and buff (harp) by using the left pedal and both sets of keys. Kirkman appears to have arranged his left-hand stops differently—buff lute, octave. The dimensions of the harpsichord here drawn are 8 feet 9¾ inches in extreem length, and 3 feet 4 inches in width at the key-boards. The great width of this key-board of the modern pianoforte renders it impossible, in designing one, to reproduce the special grace of the harpsichord.

Among composers, those who have best understood the genius of the harpsichord have been Handel and Scarlatti. The former, wich his famous Air with variations in D Minor and the Presto following it, summed up the history and techniques of the instrument, as far as it was then known. Scarlatti found such new features to display in technical contrivance and effect, that we are still attracted by an individuality, the originality of which is, as yet, untouched by time. The only parallel instance, although resembling in no other way, is that of Frédéric Chopin as a composer and performer on the pianoforte.

With the harpsichord went out the figured bass accompaniment, or through-bass, thta, for two hundred years, had been the foundation of a correct musical education. By degrees the training for technique and memory came to occupy that attention with pianoforte players which had been devoted to developing the fluency of improvisation expected from the harpsichord player (p. 700)



133 x 150mm (5.2 x 5.9 inches)

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