Of all the instruments in the world, of all the early instruments of Western civilization,
the clavichord is the most subtle, the most soothing, the most expressive, and, for just
the right person, the most satisfying.
Most of us have heard the story of Handel practicing at night in the attic on a broken-down
clavichord. Most of us have wondered how his family failed to hear him as he practiced in
secret against the wishes of his father. After you hear a clavichord, the reason is abundantly
clear. Its soft tones can be heard only a few feet away.
The clavichord was an instrument that musicians considered "uniquely expressive," according
to Beethoven. They enjoyed toying with its singing characteristics as compared to the
dynamically more powerful harpsichord and pipe organ. While the harpsichord and organ
were for concerts and mass appeal, the clavichord was for the personal enjoyment of the musician
with sensitive musical taste.
For a keyboard player who finds himself in a small apartment with neither room nor
patient-enough neighbors for a piano, the clavichord is the magnificent solution.
It is small in size (often no more than 16 inches wide and 48 inches long), small in
sound, and can be easily moved about.
The clavichord is an instrument so like the virginal in appearance, it is often
confused with it. Like the virginal, it is a small rectangular "box," which rests on
its own special stand or legs. Or it may be placed on a table. It is the most
"singing" of the keyboard instruments, yet it is very quiet. It used to be thought
of as a German instrument, one for poor scholars, organists, and schoolmasters, but
not any more. Nowadays, you can buy an American-made clavichord, or have one
imported, from $400 up.
Usually it is plain in appearance, like a small wooden suitcase, available now in rosewood,
walnut, mahogany, or any cabinet wood. The keyboard is arranged like a piano's, with
the same naturals and accidentals, and has a four-and-a-half-octave range. Open it, prop up
the flap, and you have a perfect way to make quiet music for yourself.
To understand the distinctive tone of the clavichord one must understand a little
of the technicality of how the tone is made. On harpsichords and virginals the tone is
made by a "thorn" plucking the "string" (actually a wire) with a mechanism to
prevent the string from being plucked a second time as the thorn drops back down. On
a clavichord (like a piano) the tone is produced by a small metal "hammer"
striking the string. The clavichord hammer is on the end of the very key your
finger touches. Therefore, you have direct control over the string. The player
can control loudness (which isn't very loud), softness, sharpness, even execute
a vibrato, merely by the fingers. Contrast this to the fact that once a piano key
has been struck, the player no longer can control the tone, due to the mechanical
release of the striking hammer. The clavichord stands apart from all keyboard
instruments, including the organ, in the directness with which the finger plays upon
Most historians agree that the clavichord evolved from the monochord which was an
instrument with a single string, played with a series of keys. Gradually, more
strings were added and eventually there was a string for each key. Clavichords built
now are patterned after those in Bach's time.
Music for the clavichord covers a relatively short period and is basically from the
German school. Kuhnau, Bach's predecessor at Leipzig; J. S. Bach, himself;
his two sons, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach; and Joseph
Haydn begin and end the list of important composers.
The most important compositions for clavichord are probably J. S. Bach's Sinfonia
and Haydn's Opus 14. Kuhnau wrote dance suites adapted from church sonatas
including allemandes, courantes, sarabands, galliards, and gigues. Bach, of course,
wrote many keyboard works for harpsichord, virginal, and clavichord and usually did
not specify which instrument should play which. W. F. Bach wrote fugues and polonaises
quite unlike his father's compositions. They were more modern and even romantic.
Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach, sometimes called "Clavichord" Bach, wrote sonatas and rondos,
floridly ornamented. These sonatas of "Clavichord" Bach impressed and influenced
young Joseph Haydn, who took them as a model for his own early compositions for the
This comprises virtually all the music written strictly for the clavichord, but,
of course, virginal and harpsichord music, which is unlimited, can be played
successfully on it. The gentleness of the clavichord's tone and the identity of its
sounds make it admirably suited to the works of Corelli, the Scarlattis, and Vivaldi--all
composers of dance-suite counterpoint, light graceful music as exquisite in its
miniatureness as the clavichord.
Germany was the country of the clavichord. It was known in other lands, but not as
completely understood. It is a lonely, intimate instrument, of sufficient sound for
the player, but virtually useless for the concert hall or even as a supporting instrument.
When a pianist plays a clavichord for the first time he is likely to be shocked. All
his life he has heard that studying the clavichord will develop the best touch, the
most musical playing, the best phrasing. His first reaction will be, "Ah, it is
nothing!" True, it is not a piano. Not true that it is nothing. Its subtlety,
gentleness, sparkle, and expressiveness are exquisite.
The clavichord is generally more stable mechanically than other early keyboard
instruments and will stay fairly well in tune for months. The harpsichord must be
tuned once a week and, in uncooperative weather, even more often. The clavichord,
like its giant descendant, the grand piano, needs little tinkering and tuning to
keep it in playing order, even though there are sometimes two strings per tone.
One clavichord came from Germany to Manhattan and did not need to be tuned on arrival!
The pianoforte eventually evolved from and displaced the clavichord. However, the
clavichord continued to be popular into the 19th Century. It is now having a gentle
rebirth of popularity, especially among apartment-dwellers.
Recordings of the clavichord are generally unsuccessful. In order for the sound pick-up
to be strong, microphones have to be placed so close that often the mechanical
sounds of the instrument are also picked up and magnified.
Clavichords are readily available from the following manufacturers and importers, who
will supply you with catalogs upon request:
[omitting addresses and other details...] Challis, Neupert, Sabathil, Taylor, Verkruisen, Zuckermann,
Dolmetsch, Feldberg, Goble, Hodsdon, Morley, Paul, Rhodes, Thomas.