6 · Harpsichord

Full Description

Italian, 17th century
By Giacomo Ridolfi, 1682

Compass: four octaves: C/E to c’’’.
Length: 191.0; width: 68.1;  depth of case: 20.0 cm; octave span: 15.9 cm
One manual, 2 choirs of strings at 8’ pitch
String scale: c’’ = 27.9 cm

The reverse of the nameboard is inscribed in ink: “JACOBUS RIDOLFI . ANNO . DOMINI . MDCLXXXII.”. The inner case and soundboard are of cypress with characteristic Italian moldings applied to the top and bottom perimeters. Ivory studs adorn the top edge of the case and the jack rail. The outer case is of softwood painted a greyish green with panels of aquamarine. The panels are decorated with dark green arabesques and red and yellow flowers. The inside of the lid is painted a cream color and is decorated with frames and leaves. The instrument is supported by two separate trestles painted to match the outside of the outer case. There are two choirs of strings at normal, 8-foot pitch. The natural keys are covered with boxwood with arcaded fronts; the sharps are of black stained hardwood with ebony veneer.

The southern or Italian tradition of harpsichord making is characterized by instruments with very thin, lightly constructed inner cases, often of cypress, and by a relatively short string scale (c’’ = 20-30 cm on instruments at normal, 8-foot pitch, compared to the longer, 30-40 cm scale found on northern instruments).  The short scale is largely responsible for the Italian instruments’ “dry,” “poppy” sound, which sustains only briefly after the ictus, or pluck. The crisp attack and rapid decay of sound of the Italian harpsichord, or cembalo, made it an ideal continuo instrument. Like the lute before it, the cembalo is a highly effective medium for the harmonic realization of the figured bass, the foundation of the Baroque style.

This harpsichord is not in playing condition. It is, however, in a particularly fine state of preservation, having escaped the heavy-handed, and often destructive restoration work performed in past generations on far too many instruments displayed in museums. It remains an object of great interest to scholars and modern makers because of the the relative purity of the information it yields today.

The Albert Steinert Collection                                    
Accession No. 4891.1972