harpsichord, stringed musical instrument played from a keyboard. Its strings, two or more to a note, are plucked by quills or jacks. The harpsichord originated in the 14th cent. and by the 16th cent. Venice was the center of its manufacture. At that time its prevailing shape was winglike, similar to that of a grand piano. The square harpsichord, often called spinet, became more common in the late 16th cent., when harpsichord making in the northern countries surpassed that of Italy. Perhaps the greatest craftsmen were the Ruckers family of Antwerp (late 16th–17th cent). Varying the touch in harpsichord playing does not alter the quality or volume of tone; to provide dynamic variety, octave couplers and various stops that change the tone were introduced. Contrast in volume and in tone color is made easier by the addition of a second keyboard, or manual, found on German harpsichords from the late 16th cent. and on Italian ones from c.1665. The instrument provided the basic support of virtually all the various combinations of instruments as chamber music and orchestral forms developed. In the 19th cent. the harpsichord, which required frequent tuning and replacement of quills, was superseded in general use by the piano. Since the mid-20th cent. however, the older instrument has had a revival in popularity.
See F. T. Hubbard, Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making (1965); W. I. Zuckermann, The Modern Harpsichord (1969); L. Palmer, Harpsichord in America (1989).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.