Jack Peters Harpsichords
Hints for Choosing a Harpsichord
This is very old information but still applicable. There has been updating and some new research but the basic information still holds.
Larry Palmer, The Diapason, September 1972
Figuring out which harpsichord to buy can be a challenge but it is easier than learning how to play the instrument musically.
An excellent starting point is Wolfgang Zuckermanns The Modern Harpsichord (October House). He provides an overview to the many instrument and builder choices available. Although he writes with his own biases, it is recommended that one forms their own opinions by finding out directly from builders regarding the choice of an appropriate instrument.
It is important to find out how a good harpsichord sounds by visiting collections of playable instruments or by listing to recordings. Several of Gustav Leonhardts recordings provide good examples of authentic harpsichord sounds. Performances on early instruments or copies based early designs is advised.
More and more harpsichords today are built based on designs of one of the national schools: Italian, Flemish, French, English, or German. Features of these instruments include a thin soundboard, thin and lightweight construction that allow for sound resonance, 1 to 3 sets of strings, precisely and evenly regulated action, and non-bushed keys.
The wiry sounding Italian harpsichord, with single manual Italian with the usual two 8 foot registers is excellent for continuo playing, and can accommodate almost all of the instruments literature. French styled instruments fashioned after 18th century Blanchet and Taskin models can have 3 registers (and one or two manuals) and on large instruments also have a peau de buffle of soft leather plectra - especially useful for late 18th century and modern harpsichord literature.
If you wish to have an instrument with a 16 foot register get one modeled after the 18th century German instruments such as those from Haas of Hamburg. These designs provide a separate soundboard for that register. Do not get an instrument with a 16 foot register based on claims that Bachs harpsichord had one. It has been sufficiently disproved that his harpsichord did not include a 16 foot register.
The case construction of the instrument you purchase should also be based on historical designs. It should have a curved bentside, minimal use of metal reinforcements and be of generally lightweight construction. Heavier, overbraced instruments are not necessary on an authentically designed instrument they have much lower string tension compared to the piano. Also, the heavier instruments produce less tone are less stable. On the topic of register stops, historical based instruments will have handstops rather than pedals, though pedals are useful for late 18th and 20th century literature (if you get pedals, just dont overuse them on early music early music does not call for frequent registration because that option was not available then.
The finest builders of harpsichords are in high demand. Investigate local options as well as nationally known builders. Many local builders start with kits from the master builders. Others build from their own designs. With careful comparison and investigation of local builders, you can end up with an instrument every bit as good (and many times even better) as those from the national builders. Buying locally may allow you to get an instrument quicker, perhaps for less money while supporting your local musical community. You will also be able to consult your local builder on advice for maintaining and repairing your instrument.
You should acquire an instrument that is hand made, not mass produced. At the very least the builder should be responsible for the instruments regulation. Avoid places that make more than 30 instruments a year.
The 20th century saw the revival of the harpsichord with design aspects derivative of the piano. We owe special gratitude to the builders and performers that have helped reestablish the historic harpsichord and have helped make it the standard for today.