A Musical Medley
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Mini-Music  Q & A


Making Old Things New
Prof. Hank Knox

1 - Was the piano spawned from the harpsichord?

Bartlomeo Cristofori, an Italian instrument builder and inventor, is generally credited with producing the first instrument with a recognizable piano action around 1700. Three of his instruments survive today, all built in the early 1720s. They are all essentially a harpsichord body with a novel action to allow gradations in volume determined by variations in pressure and speed of the key press. Other early piano makers were also harpsichord builders: Pascal Taskin, in Paris, began making pianos in the 1760s, while the English builder, John Broadwood, added distinctive English-style pianos to his offerings in the 1770s.

Please comment on the varying degree of difficulty in composing for the harpsichord vs. the piano:

The only technical issue is to be fully aware of the technical possibilities of each instrument. Most composers today have grown up with the piano; few know the harpsichord as well. So a composer is likely to know what kinds of sounds are available on the piano and how to write so a performer can produce those sounds. The harpsichord has its own 'vocabulary' of sounds and effects which an accomplished composer will take the time to become familiar with.

2 - Where has all the early music been archived over the centuries?

Manuscripts and original prints have been housed in any number of places over the centuries. A lot is kept in church music libraries: for example, the Vatican libraries are home to a wide range of range of liturgical music in manuscript and in print, while many of Bach's cantatas are kept in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. Public and private libraries account for much of the rest. A lot of this music has been published either in modern editions or in facsimile reprints of the original sources, but much remains accessible only to specialists. Many important collections are in the process of being digitized and made available over the internet: for example, the University of North Texas has an important collection of Lully operas which has been opened up to the public over the internet.

3 - What is the difference between a harpsichord and a clavichord?

The harpsichord is a plucked string instrument: when a key is pressed, an object resting on the key, called the jack, rises with the finger movement to pluck the string. The clavichord is a struck string instrument: when a key is pressed, a piece of metal on the end of the string, called a tangent, strikes the string and starts it vibrating. The tangent also forms one end of the sounding length of the string, and thus establishes the pitch. It is possible to make a subtle vibrato on a clavichord by increasing and decreasing the force applied to the key which increases and decreases the tension on the string, changing its pitch slightly.
 

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