Harpsichordist`s Holidays

Welcome to Atsuko`s Website!

I am Japanese Harpsichordist who has lived in Washington DC area
from 2002 to 2005.

©Atsuko Watanabe     

All right reserved 2005





 What is Harpsichord?

 About Me

 Early Music Links 




 Washington Early Music Festival 2005          WEMF 2004 Photo Album









What is Harpsichord?


The first harpsichord was probably built at the end of the 15th Century.  One can see the shape of one carved on a wood surface in a church in Minden, Germany around 1425.


The body of the harpsichord is constructing with many woods, each with its own purpose and function. Cypress, poplar, pine, oak, spruce, pearwood, holly, walnut and mahogany were all employed.  The strings were made of iron in the treble and brass in the bass.  Unlike the instrument used today, most harpsichord were highly decorated, with landscapes on the lids, birds and flowers on the soundboard, and special decoration around the rose hole which held the makers mark containing the builderfs initials.


Do you know why harpsichords are so highly decorated?  Before I answer this, I would like to explain a little about the historical background of the instrument.  Harpsichords were the ghouse instrumenth during the Baroque period from 1600 to 1750.  During this period many famous composers flourished, as J.S. Bach, Handel and Vivaldi to name but a few.


It was a period of monarchy and aristocracy. Noblemen could show their power and social status with impressive architecture, collections of fine arts, and their own dedicated band of musicians to play music for the nobility as social occasions required.  Harpsichords would convey social status, and no expense would be spared to engage the finest craftsmen to construct these instruments and artists to embellish and decorate them.  Many late instruments bear the owners coat-of-arms and other identifying insignia.


Louis XIV (the sun king) was especially lavish in his endeavors.  In addition to building a palace in Versailles, he assembled a troupe of musicians unequalled throughout Europe. His string ensemble gthe twenty-four Violinistsh were well known.  Musical ensembles were divided into groups with one to perform church music, another for drawing room or chamber music, and one for the field for equestrian adventures and other sporting events.


In the same period, aristocrats within the Holy Roman Empire emulated Louis XIV.  They build castles that imitated Versailles, and musically emulated his musical entourage.  As the Holy Roman Empire was an aggregate of small dominions, the demand and supply of harpsichords constantly increased throughout this period.


Harpsichords were commonly employed wherever music was played during this time as a solo instrument, in a small group of different instruments (an ensemble), or in small orchestras.  Even today, major orchestras include a harpsichord for the continuo part when baroque pieces are played.


Why were harpsichords used in orchestras?  There are many reasons, but three will suffice.


First – The baroque period was a significant period for the development of a new musical style.  In an earlier period the Renaissance (1450-1600), in musical chronology, music was written in gpolyphonich style.  Polyphony is the interweaving of several melodic lines.  This might be described as ghorizontalh music. In the later period called Classic (1730-1820), music was written in a style known as ghomophonich.  Homophony exists with one melodic line dominates the others, which take no part in the melody, but adds to it by augmenting harmony.  This is described as gverticalh music.


Music developed from polyphony to homophony during the baroque period.  The form called gfigured bassh or gbasso continuoh dominated every kind of ensemble music.  The harpsichordist played the bass-line with his left hand. This would counter the main melody.  With the right hand, they played the chords, which were written in figures below or above the notes of the bass-line. Only a continuo instrument such as the harpsichord can effect this composition.  Thus the keyboard instrument can sound both the ghorizontalh and the gverticalh elements at the same time.  For this reason, the harpsichord held an important place in the playing of baroque music.


Secondly – During this period, composers and conductors were usually one and the same person.  Most of these were also harpsichord or keyboard players.  A composer then, would sit or stand in the middle of an orchestra, and conduct and accompany from the harpsichord.  This had an additional advantage as it permitted the orchestra to learn the pieces quickly as the composer/harpsichordist could play a melodic line and the orchestra could then gflesh it outh.


Thirdly – Most monarchs of small and mid-sized dominions could not afford to support a large musical entourage.  However, to emulate the great monarchs such as the King of France, they found the harpsichord produced a lot of musical sound – as complex chordal structures and intricate melodic lines could be produce with ten fingers and many strings, and this could make up for a lack of string or other players, and curry favor with their noble patrons.


©Atsuko Watanabe               

All right reserved 2003-2009


Please    E-mail me!