They say that everything old is new again. In the case of the harpsichord, this definitely applies – or should anyway.
It’s hard to imagine, but before there was the venerable piano, everyone played the harpsichord. Actually, they played a whole group of similar instruments, including the virginal, spinet, clavicytherium, ottavino, and clavichord.
Then, around two hundred years ago, these instruments almost all went extinct.
On the face of it, you might confuse a piano with a harpsichord. They both have a similar shape, are designed with keyboard, and are played by a seated performer.
The fundamental difference can only be heard after you press one of the keys. While the piano uses hammers to strike the strings, the harpsichord has a mechanism to pluck them.
The resulting sound is not unlike a guitarist pulling on the strings of his instrument. Compared to a piano, each note is sharp, distinct, and staccato. It gives the music played on the harpsichord a strong sense of rhythm.
That isn’t to say a piano cannot emulate some of these characteristics. Great pianists like Glenn Gould used specific techniques to minimize the rounded sound of the piano. This was especially audible when he played the keyboard music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Although, even this oustanding effort can be seen simply as imitation.
The fact is many well-known pieces of music, so often performed on the piano, were actually written during the time of the harpsichord. Composers like Bach and Handel would only have heard early versions of the instrument and not until the very end of their lives.
Below are two performances of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 847, from The Well-Tempered Clavier. The first is played on the piano, while the second is on the harpsichord.
Which do you prefer?