History of the clavichord

Someone will perhaps wonder what’s the point in writing a page on the evolution of the clavichord: after all, it never was a hot topic and on the other hand there are good books, like that of Bernhard Brauchli, that sum up the history of this instrument.
Unfortunately I had to notice often enough that the clavichord, despite being one of the most popular keyboard instruments for almost 500 years, is still little known today and is often treated only superficially. Even modern copies seem to be limited to 3 or 4 models from the late eighteenth century and on technical evolution of the instrument is talked very little.
With this short text I hope to give a general background on the instrument and at the same time to stimulate musicians to know more. Also for anyone interested in buying a clavichord, this short reading can be useful to know what to expect (and what not) from any type of instrument.

Sometimes we hear that the clavichord in the past had the same function as the upright piano today. Behind this familiar comparison, however, lies the risk of simplifying its role. Because while it’s true that it was the main home keyboard instrument, it’s also true that its importance wasn’t limited to that. So for instance the upright piano has not undergone a 5-century-long technical experimentation, has not inspired a flowering of dedicated literature and was never the main instrument for composers.

One of the greatest obstacles to the knowledge of the clavichord today comes from the dearth of good instruments. On one hand, it is increasingly difficult to play instruments in museums. It is a paradox if one considers that in the past more damage has been done to the instruments by “restorers”, than by casual players like you and me. Moreover, historical clavichords are very often in such conditions (incorrect pitch or stringing) that their sound will be far from optimal. Of the historical clavichords that I could play or hear, only a few gave me a picture of what was probably the original sound. For many others the most obvious trait, was a poor setup.
On the other hand, unfortunately, replicas are often even worse. One reason is that the demand is so limited, that it is difficult for a maker to have opportunity or interest to master the problems of this instrument. The result is often to borrow technical solutions from harpsichord or piano building, which are unsuitable for touch and sound production of the clavichord.

If we imagine to play one of the first preserved clavichords (ca. 1540) and then compare it to one of the latest (ca. 1840), it would soon be clear that, although the rectangular shape and the sound production remained similar, the differences for the performer are comparable, if not greater than those between the Ebert-organ and a Cavaillè-Coll. This is because, despite its external shape, this small instrument has undergone centuries of technical experimentation.

Plan of a clavichord ca. 1440

The clavichord was probably invented during the Fourteenth century, as iconographic evidences suggest; but the first detailed technical descriptions only date from the following century. Fifteenth-century instruments were generally quite small and sounded about an octave higher than modern instruments. They had a long, narrow soundboard passing under the keylevers and a high bridge shaped not unlike that of a viola; the keyboard, about 3 octaves, was protruding and up to 4 keys hit the same pair of strings. By hitting a string in different places, its length is divided differently and, as on a guitar, you can get several notes. Clavichords with this feature are called fretted and were built throughout the life of the instrument. The disadvantage of having multiple fretting is that some notes, at the interval of a second, cannot be played together; but even playing a scale you have to be careful to release a key properly before playing the next one. Basically on these clavichords no thick “romantic” legato is possible.

Renaissance Clavichord

Over time, a portion of the soundboard began to be raised and one or more lower straight bridges were used; In this way it was possible to build clavichords also the fourth or fifth, which were among the most popular in the sixteenth century. The instrument expanded slightly: the compass could range from just over 3 octaves to 4 octaves and a half. Instead instruments remained faithful to fretting in groups of 3 and 4 notes (multiple fretting); they also kept the portion of soundboard under the keys and the protruding keyboard.

Clavichord ca. 1620

During the seventeenth century almost all the technical innovations of the following century were tried here and there: the lower part of the soundboard was discontinued and the bridge adopted the familiar curved shape; the keyboard was incorporated into the case by increasing its width and the standard compass became now 45 keys. Alongside with high pitched clavichords, many instruments sounded now at roughly normal pitch, although the overall dimensions did not change radically.

Clavichord ca. 1680

Also in the seventeenth century the instrument gradually moved from the medieval fretting in groups of 3 and 4 notes, to regular groups of 3 (triple fretting); then around the end of the century the classic diatonic fretting (double fretting), became the most popular. In this fretting system, each white key has its own pair of strings, and the black keys are tied to the next note (the typical pattern is: c+c# , d , e flat+e natural, f+f#, g+g#, a, b flat+ b natural). This is in many ways ideal, because with only 7 pairs of strings per octave, you almost never encounter problematic passages in the whole repertoire.

Clavichord ca. 1700

During the 18th century the compass grew progressively from the classic 45 keys to sometimes more than 5 octaves. The overall shape didn’t change much, but dimensions increased together with compass and wrestplanks were often built in two sections, one of which angled. From about 1730 unfretted instruments, that is with a pair of strings per key, became more and more popular.
On a practical level the advantages of a fretted clavichord are that it will be more compact, stable and quick to tune. The main disadvantage is that notes on the same strings cannot be played together; In addition, frets are designed to work for the temperament set during construction. These, however, should not be seen as insurmountable problems, especially in the case of diatonically-fretted clavichords: these were in fact built until the early nineteenth century.
Unfretted clavichords have no such limitations; this comes, however to a price: they are bigger, heavier and often lack the directness of the older instruments.
Due to the additional tension, a heavier structure was needed together with longer levers due to the greater number of strings. Along with the key length, also the balance changed towards the end of the century, making the instruments easier to play but less direct.

Clavichord ca. 1780

In the early nineteenth century clavichords were almost always unfretted. They were often very large, fairly loud and the compass reached in some cases even 6 full octaves (CC-c””).

All these features (and many others), presented now in simple chronological order, are in truth closely related to each other and to the overall balance of the instrument; from their combination very different types of clavichord resulted. Any change, big or small, was certainly dictated by the desire to improve the instrument in relation to practical or acoustic issues and musical taste.

One consequence of this long technical experimentation is that for roughly every 50 years we are dealing with a type of instrument with rather peculiar characteristics. As usual, this was not a linear evolution and of course more innovative or more conservative instrument were built during the same period. It is also worth pointing out that from an acoustical and musical point of view there are excellent instruments in every era: some of them appear so successful to question the very idea of “evolution” understood as “improvement”. More accurate would be to say that history of instrument building featured a steady change with several different highlights.

The musical implications of such a wide variety of forms is that each instrument is designed to meet certain musical needs and will work more or less successfully for a certain type of repertoire: because of its compass, temperament and fretting, a Renaissance clavichord clearly won’t allow you to play the Art of Fugue.
Perhaps less obvious is the fact that even a nineteenth-century clavichord, is not really suited for contrapuntal music: although there are no limitations of compass, fretting and tuning, the type of instrument is not designed to make independent melodic lines clear, but rather to blend them together.

For those interested in buying an instrument these limitations might perhaps seem a bitter disadvantage; but there is also a downside, which is totally positive: each of these instruments has something very particular to teach.
For example, a Renaissance clavichord, fretted in groups of 3 and 4 notes, often considered not more than a toy, is in fact the only keyboard instrument that makes really aware of articulation, especially in relation to legato: this instrument underlines with a metallic noise all those inaccuracies that on other instruments would be acceptable. The correct fingering becomes therefore essential and you are often surprised how good historical fingerings work on this clavichords.

Clavichord with pedal

I am often asked if there is a type of instrument that can play everything equally well, but the answer is negative. There are however instruments that have fewer limitations than others, precisely because they were conceived in eras between older and newer sound ideals. So if you want to play a little bit of everything, my advice is to consider diatonically fretted clavichords of the eighteenth-century: they retain much of the good features of the oldest instruments, such as the livey and direct touch, but without having the biggest limitations.

Musicians who are really passionate about the older repertoire should seriously consider a clavichord looking back to the 16th or 17th century: they are not instruments that works for a general use, as I said. On the other hand they are the only ones who can teach certain things and, if one is interested in that kind of repertoire, he surely will get the most profit.

Those who want to deal mainly with the repertoire from Bach onwards, should instead focus on the great unfretted instruments of the late eighteenth century with an extension of 5 octaves. It shouldn’t be difficult to find one, because these are also the most popular models.

In the case of organ repertoire, nothing more is needed than a simple diatonically-fretted clavichord with 4 octaves or a little more; However, it would be wise to consider the advantages of a second instrument to play with pedals; or at least of a pedalboard connected to the manual instrument.

In conclusion I hope to have given at least general overview on the history of this instrument, with an eye on implications that technical features have for music.