Sunday, April 12, 2009

The harpsichord

As I write this post, I'm listening to my oldest daughter play the piano downstairs. It's a shame she doesn't get much chance to play anymore because she's very good, having had lessons for almost ten years. But she's home for Easter today, and it's nice to listen to her play again.

The piano wasn't the first keyboard instrument ever made, though. Before its invention (around 1709), what high-society types had sitting in their parlors were harpsichords. It was the foremost instrument for music of the Baroque and early Classical periods, and it is still often played in music from those periods. In fact, a lot of the music from composers like Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi would be hard to perform without it.

The harpsichord had an entirely different sound from the piano. Whereas a piano's strings are hammered with soft felt hammers, the harpsichord's strings were plucked. The harpsichord had little hooks (known as plectra) that rested near the strings, and when a key was pressed, the plectra reached over and plucked the appropriate string. So instead of sounding mellow or rich like the piano sounds, a harpsichord sounded twangy or tinkly.

But for all its classiness, the harpsichord had a disappointing drawback---no matter how hard or soft you struck a key, it would give exactly the same volume. Therefore, when the piano came along, the big attraction was you could change the volume of the notes while playing it. If struck hard it played loud, and if struck lightly, it played softer.

In fact, the word "piano" actually means "the soft" in Italian. Kind of a stupid name, I guess. Actually, the piano was first called the "LoudSoft"---or in Italian, the "Fortepiano." Eventually, this was turned around to "Pianoforte. And as time went by people started shortening that word to just "piano."

However, I really like the sound of the harpsichord. For me, it evokes visions of elaborately dressed ladies and gentlemen dancing in beautiful grand halls.

And here's something rather amusing, but very impressive. This harpsichord is built entirely out of LEGOs---approximately 100,000 black, red, tan and white pieces were used to build this instrument.

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