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Thread: Very basic clavier history

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    Senior Member Victor Redseal's Avatar
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    Default Very basic clavier history

    A clavier is a generic name for any stringed keyboard including the piano. An organ, however, is not a clavier, although some say the keyboard portion of any instrument that employs one is a clavier. The term comes from the Latin clavis or key-bearer. It is related to clavichord (literally “key string”), clavicle (the collarbone), claves (a percussion instrument) and clef (key).

    The earliest known stringed keyboard instrument appeared in Europe in the 15th century and called a “chekker.” The problem is, we have no idea what this keyboard is today and so no idea of the action used to vibrate the strings. It may be the same instrument mentioned in 1388 in a letter written by King John of Aragon in which he makes reference to “an instrument seeming like organs, that sounds with strings” but he did not mention this instrument by name. Likening its appearance to an organ indicates that it may have had an upright sound chamber and so might have been early upright harpsichord called a clavicytherium.



    The shape is similar to the water organ known as a hydraulis:



    Galpin thought the chekker was a synonymous with a hammered instrument called a dulce melos (literally “sweet limb”). In that day, however, hammered stringed instruments were very rare while references to the chekker abound in literature of this period indicating that it was common. Moreover, the dulce melos was closer to being a hackbrett and was certainly not a keyboard:



    We know that chekker was not a generic term like clavier being that instruments as the clavichord, harpsichord, spinet and virginal were not known in those days and so there could have been no general title to know them under. Chekker had to be the name of an actual instrument. Some think it may have been an alternate or early name for the clavichord and I think this is probably true or it was an instrument very similar to the clavichord.

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    Senior Member Victor Redseal's Avatar
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    One clue would be in the very word “chekker.” What does it mean? Galpin thought it meant that the movement of the keys were checked or stopped. But since the motion of any keyboard is stopped, it does not seem likely that this would be seen as any kind of distinguishing characteristic. Chekker in French was often rendered as eschaquier and other closer variations. In Argonese Spanish, the spelling is eschaquer. The spellings are very close to exchequer. The normal definition of exchequer as a department or office involved in the collection and management of national or royal revenues (basically a treasury) is not the original meaning. An exchequer is actually a rectangular abacus as shown below:



    A person playing a clavichord does resemble someone working an abacus and since the clavichord is small and rectangular and an abacus was a familiar device to musical theoreticians and composers.




    Clavichord:
    The oldest of the stringed keyboard instruments, it was very popular throughout Western Europe until the 19th century. The clavichord is the simplest of the stringed keyboards but very expressive. It is generally a solo instrument but goes well with voice. It is touch-sensitive for both volume and pitch. The harder one plays, the louder the instrument but the pitch will also change. This is because pressing the key harder causes the string to bend. The purpose of this is that it provides a wonderful vibrato effect by pressing repeatedly harder on the keys while holding them down. An unusual instrument in that a pair of strings might serve several keys. This reduces the number of strings. The strings are contained in a rectangular frame and strings run transversely along the length of the long sides and so are at right angles to the player.




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    Senior Member Victor Redseal's Avatar
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    Virginal:
    The virginal is a small harpsichord having only one set of strings and one keyboard console. Exactly how the instrument acquired its name is under dispute. Some thought it might have been named in honor of Elizabeth I known as the Virgin Queen but this is unlikely. Probably the name is linked to female performers or some feel that the sound of the instrument is like that of a maiden girl. Regardless, it is an exquisite instrument. Like the clavichord, it is a rectangular instrument but far more complex. Some virginals are rather polygonal in shape to suit the transverse direction of the strings. The clip below uses the term “muselar” which means that the keyboard is placed on the right side of the machine. There are also left-sided virginals which are called “spinett.” There is only one known center-mounted keyboard on a virginal which belonged to the Duke of Cleves. No one knows if this was the only one made or whether it was an early design that was later ignored. Unlike the clavichord, the virginal and harpsichord are not touch sensitive. As the key is pressed, a wooden slat called a jack which has a quill or plectrum mounted on it moves up and plucks the string. When the key is released, the jack falls into its original position plucking the string again on the way down producing a double note. Touch sensitivity would produce a muddled tone if the keys were played hard. Likewise the double action precludes the ability to add vibrato.





    Epinette:
    Another rectangular frame keyboard. It has the same action as harpsichord and virginal. Like the virginal, it has one keyboard and one set of jacks and strings. Unlike the other rectangular keyboards, its strings run directly across from left to right. It is higher pitched than the virginal. Another variation of the name epinette is spinet but on one is sure of the origins of the word. Not all spinets are rectangular, however, the so-called bentside spinets are rather popular:



    Other bentsides are trapezoidal:



    In fact, we are not even sure what constituted a spinet as opposed to a virginal. They appear to be variations of a theme. For that matter, neither is that different from the harpsichord.

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    Senior Member Victor Redseal's Avatar
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    Harpsichord:
    Around since the late 14th century, the harpsichord is shaped like a piano—a kind of wing shape—even though the strings are plucked rather than hammered. The wing shape allows for the different length strings which run parallel to the player’s line of sight. Another name for the harpsichord is cembalo. The instrument appears to have its genesis in Italy although the premier harpsichord-crafting family were the Ruckers of Antwerp. Harpsichords often had double consoles and double sets of jacks and strings (but then, so did some virginals).





    Clavinet:
    A clavinet is an electric harpsichord which were ubiquitous is funk throughout the 70s. If you want to hear one, just listen to Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.”




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    Senior Member Victor Redseal's Avatar
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    When I mentioned that some bentsides were trapezoidal, I meant something more like this. The one I showed above does not appear to be a bentside:


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