a musical instrument similar to a small piano
Origin and usage
The word harpsichord is derived from the Latin root ‘chorda’ meaning ‘string’ and the word ‘harpa’ meaning ‘stringed instrument played with the fingers’. It first appeared in English in the 1610s and is closely related to the French word ‘harpechorde’ meaning ‘harp string’.
Harpsichord refers to a musical instrument that looks like a small piano. It has keys like a piano and music is played by pressing the keys, which lift tiny levers inside the instrument that strike them to produce sound. Unlike a piano, a harpsichord cannot vary its volume based on the player’s finger pressure.
The harpsichord was one of the most important instruments in European music, reaching the height of popularity from about the 16th century through to the early 18th century. The first harpsichords were built in Italy, but eventually skilled craftsmen in England, Flanders, France and Germany were producing high-quality instruments too. It became fashionable to decorate harpsichords with elaborately painted lids.
Most Baroque composers, like Bach, Handel and Vivaldi, wrote music for the harpsichord and it was a very popular instrument for playing and performing music.
By the mid-18th century, the harpsichord had been overtaken by more advanced instruments like the piano and changing music styles that favoured lighter, rising and falling sounds that the harpsichord simply couldn’t produce.
“The simple act of sitting down and playing something enormously complex and spiritually uplifting on a harpsichord just bores kids to tears. There’s no sizzle, there’s no grab. But it’s the great lesson of serious music, that it invites you to listen, rather than demands that you listen.”
(David Ogden Stiers)