History of Piano – Part 3
Instruments Preceding the Piano
Following on from Article No. 2 in our series of “History of Piano”, next in order of development comes the monochord, clarichord, or clavichord, the latter being the name by which it is generally known. As it was the instrument most used during the six centuries which followed, it is worthy of close study.
In shape, it much resembled a small square piano without frame or legs. The strings were of brass, struck by a wedge made of the same metal which was called a tangent. It was capable of soft tones only, but they were very sweet and melancholy. The elder Bach loved this instrument. He did not take kindly to the piano which was about to supplant his beloved clavichord. In playing the music written by Bach, we must remember that he wrote entirely for the clavichord. The instrument he used was, without doubt, the product of Italy, as during this time the Italians led all Europe in the arts.
At a later period, the clavichord was copied by the Germans and Belgians. It was used by them for centuries on account of its simple construction and low price. Mozart always carried one with him as part of his baggage when traveling. The virginal, spinet, and harpsichord followed the clavichord in rapid succession, considering that the last named instrument had been in favor for such a long time, with seemingly no attempt at improvement. All of these three instruments had strings of brass, with quill plectra attached to pieces of wood. These were called “jacks”–a name still used today in making up the action of the piano.
History Of Piano Continued…
How the Virginal Got Its Name
The virginal and spinet were almost identical with each other, but the harpsichord was larger and occasionally was built with two keyboards.
There are several explanations as to why the virginal was so called. One is that it got its name from its association with hymns to the Virgin. Another is that it was thus called in honor of Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, as she was commonly known, even though it is reputed she had many affairs during her time on the throne. We may accept whichever theory best suits us, but history records that both Elizabeth and Mary of Scotland were proficient in its use and that it was the favorite instrument of Henry VIII. Both males and females played this instrument, which precedes the instrument discussed in our history of piano. Items for repairs and for instruction in playing the virginal appear frequently in the royal expense book, showing conclusively that His Majesty was not unmindful of such accomplishments. Four octaves was the range of these old instruments, from the second added line below in the bass to the second added line above in the treble. There was but one string to each note, and one can well understand why a writer of that period describes the tone as “a scratch with a sound at the end of it.” Queen Elizabeth’s virginal is still preserved at Worcestershire. It is a most elaborate instrument, with a cedar case ornately covered with crimson velvet and lined with yellow silk. Its weight is only twenty-four pounds. Gold plate covers the front. Thirty of its fifty keys are of ebony with tips of gold. The semitone keys are inlaid with silver, ivory, and various woods, each key being composed of two hundred and fifty pieces. The royal arms are emblazoned upon the case. The Queen’s virginal instruction book is also carefully kept, one of the many silent records of the accomplishments of this gifted and brilliant woman.
The instrument which belonged, once upon a time, to Mary Queen of Scots was not quite so gorgeous. Its case was of oak inlaid with cedar, but it was ornamented with gold and had rare paintings on the case. It was customary to employ the best artists to decorate these instruments, as this greatly enhanced their value. There is a story that Salvatore Rosa, on a wager, made his almost valueless harpsichord worth a thousand scudi by painting a landscape with figures upon the lid. Our next article in our series of the history of piano part 4 continues the saga of this glorious instrument.