2 · Clavichord

Full Description

German, 17th century
Anonymous (inscribed "D.O.M. 1652")

Compass: four octaves, plus three notes: C/E to d’’’.
Length 106.1 cm; width 30.8 cm; depth of case 9.5 cm; octave span 16.2 cm
String scale: c’’ = 21.0 cm

The inside of the bottom of the case is inscribed in ink: “D. O. M. 1652” (possibly a maker ’s initials, but more likely an abbreviation of “Deo optimo maximo” [to the best and greatest God]).  The case of this small clavichord is made of walnut and is devoid of ornament save for a rose of carved wood and parchment, and mouldings around the perimeters of the lid, the upper and lower edges of the case, and the soundboard. The instrument is supported by a stand of walnut (of a later date).

The clavichord is the least complex of the stringed keyboard instruments; its mechanism is a simple fulcrum—the back end of the key lever is fitted with a metal blade called a tangent which rises to press against a pair of strings when the front of the key is pressed. The sound produced is very soft since the tangent remains in contact with the strings for the duration of the sound, which limits the amplitude of the string’s vibration (and hence its volume) to just a tonal whisper.  However of all the keyboard instruments in use prior to the advent of the piano, only the clavichord allowed the player to control the volume level by varying finger pressure.

This small German instrument is an example of the “fretted” clavichord; the term refers to the sharing of a pair, or course, of strings by two or three of the tangents, thus reducing the number of strings necessary for the range. These fretted instruments were inexpensive to make and easily portable— they were often used as practice instruments by organists.

The Belle Skinner Collection
Accession No. 4944.1960

Musical Example:

Richard Rephann, director emeritus, performing Corrente from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, anonymous (early 17th century)
Yale University Collection of Musical Instruments, 16 October 2004