The Baroque German Harpsichord
Construction - tonal characteristics - specification

Hass Harpsichord 1734

It is unlikely that the lightweight, light-sounding almost jangle of the supposedly “authentic” baroque harpsichord would have been heard in Bach’s Germany. The German baroque harpsichord was considerably more substantial, both in construction and sound output, with a wider specification including 16' stop, and optionally equipped with a separate, organ-style pedalboard used for domestic organ practice.

In Bach's Leipzig, there was an established tradition of Collegia Musica, secular musical organizations run mainly by the students of the city's famed university, and contributing music of the highest quality. In the spring of 1729, Bach took over directorship of the Collegium founded in 1702 by Telemann, its performances given weekly in Zimmermann's Coffee House on the fashionable Catherine Strasse, centrally placed close to the Marktplatz.

Himself an enthusiastic amateur musician, Gottfried Zimmerman frequently re-equipped his establishment with the latest musical instruments for use by the Collegium and other musical guests. One of his prize possessions in the late 1720s was “a clavcymbel of large size and range of expressivity” which was a Leipzig attraction in itself. It was replaced by an “even finer instrument” in 1733.

The baroque German harpsichord was undoubtedly a substantial and splendid instrument. Our illustration above shows a 1734 harpsichord by the celebrated Hamburg builder Hieronymous Albrecht Hass (baptised 1 December 1689–buried 19 June 1752), now in the Musical Instrument Museum in Brussels. It is nine feet long, and illustrates the way in which Hass included the 16-foot stop in his instruments. The 16-foot bridge is seen closest to the curved side, on a separate, slightly raised section of soundboard. To its left are (in succession) the 8-foot hitchpin rail (resting on an internal curved side, not visible), the 8-foot bridge, and the 4-foot bridge.

Hass Haas 3 manual harpsichord belonging to Rafael Puyana
The 16-foot stop
Recent musicological research has shown that Bach explicitly required a harpsichord with 16'-register for solo as well as for chamber music; he considered it important that music should have "fundament" - a good bass foundation. Thus he would most certainly have used the 16' register for the bass line when playing continuo or a sonata for harpsichord and violin or flute.

Bach would naturally have been familiar with the instruments of the major harpsichord builders of his time, preeminent among whom was the Hamburg builder Hieronymus Albrecht Hass (1689-1752). The Hass instrument on the left was built in 1740, it has three manuals with couplers, five choirs of strings (1x16', 2x8', 1x4', 1x2') with a separate soundboard for the 16' choir, six rows of jacks, a lute stop and harp stop for the 16'. This fine instrument well represents the culmination of the German school. It is shown here with its owner, the late Rafael Puyana (died 2013).

The few surviving Hass harpsichords show an attempt to develop the instrument in a number of ways: one from 1723 has the unusual disposition 8' 8' 8' 4'. Hass also used a 16' set of strings (an octave below standard 8' pitch) and a 2' set (2 octaves higher than 8' pitch) for part of the keyboard.

Hass harpsichord 1710 ay Yale
The Hass instrument illustrated on the right belongs to the Yale Collection. Dated 1710 on the soundboard, it has two manuals with an extensive disposition of five choirs of strings (1x16', 2x8', 1x4', 1x2') with a separate soundboard for the 16' choir of strings. Buff stop on lower 8' and 16'. This fine instrument well represents the culmination of the German school, together with a fairly standardized specification.

Solid and Sonorous
Unlike the Flemish and French harpsichords, the baroque German harpsichord was a heavier, more solidly-built instrument with deeper sonority. The organ chorale, and organ music generally, played an important part in German religious life, and in terms of sonority the baroque German harpsichord could almost be considered as a domestic organ. Indeed Gottfried Silbermann, famed Saxon organ-builder, friend and contemporary of Bach, also built harpsichords in his Freiberg workshops.

Contemporary music critic and commentator Jakob Adlung wrote in 1738: “The most beautiful harpsichord which I saw was that which Herr Vogler, Burgomeister in Weimar, took me to see and hear, an instrument for which Herr Vogler had himself drawn up the specification. The harpsichord consisted of two choirs of 8' strings and one of 4', with a compass of six octaves. One of the 8' set was on the upper keyboard, and the others played from the lower keyboard. The sound board was so thick that it gave the impression of being unable to sound, and yet, I never heard an instrument which had a more beautiful sound than this one. The interior of the case was reinforced with many elements of iron, especially the side of the tail, where the tension of the strings is strongest.” Burgomeister Vogler (1695?-1765) was a pupil and admirer of J.S.Bach. He was organist at the court of Weimar until appointed Burgomeister in 1735.

The Pedal Harpsichord
A pedal-harpsichord, that is, a harpsichord with an organ-type pedal-board, would have been found in the home of most German organists during the baroque period. Organ practice in churches was difficult; some willing collaborator had to be found, and paid, to pump the organ, and the church could be very cold in winter. Additionally, several present-day organists have confirmed that practice on the pedal-harpsichord is infinitely more demanding in terms of accuracy and precision than on the organ. Bach wrote his Six Trio Sonatas to improve the pedal technique of his son Wilhelm Friedemann. The manuscript of Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue, which according to Albert Schweizer vanished in the mid-1800's, was apparently headed Cembalo e pedale, clearly indicating performance on the pedal-harpsichord. Jakob Adlung, in Musica Mechanica Organoedi (1768), describes clavichords and harpsichords with separate pedals like an organ pedal-board. Bach possessed three of these, and according to Forkel, Bach "liked to improvise on a two-manual clavier with pedal". Our illustration shows an instrument currently in production by the firm of J.C. Neupert.

Recent research has established that for his weekly concerts at Zimmermann' s Coffee House Bach had a double manual harpsichord (16', 3x8', 4') mounted on a pedal harpsichord (2x16', 3x8') made by Zacharias Hildebrandt, who was both harpsichord builder, and organ builder under the direction of Bach's friend and colleague Gottfried Silbermann.

The Lute-Harpsichord
That Bach clearly preferred a mellow and substantial sound form his harpsichords is illustrated by his interest in the 'lautenwerck" or lute-harpsichord. He clearly liked the combination of softness with strength which these instruments are capable of producing, and he is known to have drawn up his own specifications for such an instrument to be built for him by Hildebrandt. In an annotation to Adlung's Musica mechanica organoedi, Johann Friedrich Agricola described a Lautenwerk that belonged to Bach:

The editor of these notes remembers having seen and heard a "Lautenclavicymbel" in Leipzig in about 1740, designed by Mr. Johann Sebastian Bach and made by Mr. Zacharias Hildebrand, which was smaller in size than a normal harpsichord but in all other respects similar. It had two choirs of gut strings, and a so-called little octave of brass strings. It is true that in its normal setting (that is, when only one stop was drawn) it sounded more like a theorbo than a lute. But if one drew the lute-stop (such as is found on a harpsichord) together with the cornet stop [?the 4' brass stop undamped], one could almost deceive professional lutenists."

The inventory of Bach's possessions at the time of his death reveals that he owned two such instruments, as well as three harpsichords, one lute and a spinet.

"Special Effects" foot pedals
The wars of the mid-eighteenth century in Europe and especially the Seven Years War (1756-63) drove many continental workmen to England, bringing their styles and influence with them. Amongst these was the great Swiss harpsichord maker Burkat Tschudi or Shudi. Shudi's son-in-law, John Broadwood, was at first his workman-apprentice, later becoming his partner and then successor. A very fine harpsichord by Shudi and Broadwood dated 1770 can be found in the Fenton House Collection, London. This two-manual instrument is interesting as it demonstrates an example of the mechanical devices to facilitate sound- and registration-changes which would have been available at the time. This instrument has three foot pedals, operating, from left to right: the machine stop, the buff stop and the Venetian swell. When the machine stop is engaged and the pedal is up, the lower manual sounds all three sets of strings and the upper sounds the front 8'. With the pedal depressed, the lower manual sounds the back 8' (leather plectra) and the upper, the lute stop.

Architecture was a very important element in German baroque music. Many of Bach's organ preludes for example, are planned like great buildings - a major theme element begins and ends the piece like supporting columns, while in between a noble arch decorated with recitative passages, a keystone forming the central point. These architectural elements, together with fugal entries, a change of phrase or mood, were signalled by changes of registration; thus harpsichords were equipped with two or three manuals, several choruses, and buff or lute effects. The ability to change registration with a quick depression or release of a footpedal would certainly have been put to good use.

In baroque Germany, organ and harpsichord builders - often one and the same - were excellent craftsmen and mechanics, fully capable of providing sophisticated devices to enhance the musical performances of their clients.

The foregoing evidence clearly indicates the typical baroque German harpsichord as an instrument substantial in construction, specification and tonal characteristics, with 16', two or more 8', 4' and 2' choruses. An organ-type pedalboard was also not uncommon. Additional mechanical devices in the form of foot pedals might also be provided to assist quick tonal and registration changes.

For performance today, the instruments of Pleyel, Wittmayer, Ammer, Sperrhake, Neupert, Feldberg, Dolmetsch and Goff represent fairly accurately the depth of sonority and gravitas Bach would have expected from his own harpsichords.

Click the images for full details and more music samples.

More information

for a complete listing of all our Baroque Music sites.

Click for copyright information.

      internet arton publications
there’s more