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The harpsichord is a stringed keyboard instrument that uses devices to pluck strings to make musical tones. It originated in the Middle Ages, possibly in the 1300s. Harpsichords were originally small instruments, called virginals, but became larger with improvements. Italian and Flemish instrument makers worked to make important improvements in the harpsichord, notably Hans Rucker of Flanders in the late 1500s.

The peak of historical harpsichord design occurred in France during the 1700s. French harpsichord makers studied and improved on the Hans Rucker designs. Pascal Taskin was known for his harpsichords during this era. In England, harpsichord-makers Jacob Kirkman and Burkat Shudi built harpsichords that were deemed some of the best and most visually beautiful. Popularity of the harpsichord fell drastically as the piano gained popularity in the mid 1700s.

Antique harpsichords are available for collectors today, usually through dealers that specialize in harpsichords. Harpsichords were made in several sizes in addition to the full-size harpsichord. These include the smaller virginals and spinets as well as an upright version called a clavicytherium. A resurgent interest in harpsichords occurred in the mid-to-late 20th century, so many antique instruments have been restored. Newer instruments based on Flemish, French, and English historical designs are also available for purchase.

Quick Facts

  • The first historical reference to a harpsichord was made in 1397 in writings from Padua, Italy. The first artwork to include a harpsichord is a sculpture in Minden, Germany that dates to 1425
  • One of the oldest-known playable harpsichords is housed at the National Music Museum at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. The Neapolitan harpsichord dates to around 1530
  • A harpsichord made by Joseph Johann Cochet in 1679 was sold at auction by Sotheby's in 2001 for $390,555. Cochet was a descendant of Hans Rucker

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