2-manual Harpsichord

2-manual Harpsichord after Pascal Taskin 1769 by F. Hubbard Harpsichords 1980.
– Forqueray, Tombeau for Glenn Gould by Titmuss and French Suite in G major by Bach.

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The French double-manual harpsichord became, during the heat of the harpsichord revival of the second half of the 20th century, the basic instrument upon which much of its extensive literature was played. Aside from the works that are native to it such as the music of the Couperins, Jean-Philipe Rameau and later composers such as Jacques Duphly and Claude Balbâtre, it is an instrument which lends itself to the music of Bach and his German contemporaries, the music of Scarlatti, the Spanish and Portuguese school and later Italian composers.

The reasons for this adapability are found in its perfumed ringing sound, born of sturdy, almost heavy, construction derived from the Flemish influence; and a sophisticated but simple action. The late French-style action includes unique features; a punched-leather jackslide for weather-independent quietness of operation and virtually perfect fit of the jacks, and a keyboard with perfect proportions, ergonomics and mechanical advantage. There is a sturdy jackrail mortised into the case, whichs form the upstop or termination of the key travel. The result is a reliable and responsive action which serves the highly ornamented music to perfection.

Aside from the action, the case structure is notable. It includes heavy interior framing (of basswood or spruce) which supports the large flexible soundboard and minimizes tuning by its stiffness and imperviousness to changes in humidity. The shape and proportions are aesthetically very pleasing. The design formed the basis of most of the piano-case designs of the Northern European makers, including the English maker Broadwood, Tschudi and Kirkman, until well into the early years of the 19th c. The piano which Beethoven received as a gift from John Broadwood differed little in its outward appearance from the Taskin and Hemsch harpsichords of 18th century Paris.

The musical flexibility of the instruments is in part derived from the three choirs of strings, in combination with the four sets of jacks and two keyboards. This allows for a basic single eight foot register to be coupled to the upper, more nasal eight foot simply by shoving the upper keyboard in. This frees the player from having to engage hand stops and allows her simultaneously to use two eights on the lower manual, against a single upper manual eight. In addition there is a four foot, useful for tutti passages in concerti or in extroverted solo music. A further refinement is the peau de bufle, a leather-quilled piano stop which can be used as a special effect (it is heard in Couperin’s Les Ombres Errantes, Forqueray’s La Sylva, and the Loure of Bach’s French Suite no. 5).

The original of this instrument was fitted with a pedal mechanism which allowed the player to shift the stops during a piece, an effect useful for the music of the later 18th century, which included rapid changes of dynamics. At one point Taskin produced both pianos and harpsichords in the same cases, with differing actions. As the fashion for harpsichords waned, the instrument found itself competing with the piano.

Many stunning and beautifully crafted instruments were burned and vandalized during the chaos of the French revolution, beginning in 1789, and this essentially destroyed the industry and ended the harpsichord’s long reign.

(This particular instrument was completed in 1980 from a case-assembled and soundboard-installed kit purchased from Frank Hubbard Harsichords of Boston, Massachusetts. The soundboard was painted by Dirk Van Wyck, the pearwood jacks and leather slides were supplied by Robert Duffy of Boston, and the instrument was musically finished and painted by Clive Titmuss. It has been used in literally hundreds of concerts over 25 years with excellent results.)

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