The harpsichord is a keyboard instrument whose sound is produced by a “nail” called a plectrum, which plucks or plays the strings, differing, therefore, from the piano, an instrument whose strings are struck by hammers.
There are several kinds of instruments in the harpsichord family, from the small, triangular spinet, to the rectangular virginal, until arriving at the instrument that is shaped similarly to the grand piano (the harpsichord proper), which may have one or two keyboards. Although the appearance may vary, the sound will always be produced in the same way, with a plectrum. Different models, in different sizes and shapes have been built over the centuries, by artisans in several countries. Although the strings are plucked in the same way, the tone can change significantly according to the shape and the characteristics of its construction.
Besides its shape and the way it is built, the decoration of a harpsichord can change significantly, both internally and externally. This can be seen both in early instruments and in copies made today. The soundboard is usually painted with floral motifs and the interior of the board may feature a bucolic landscape; the legs may be simply barley-twist or else succumb to the extravagant golden baroque curves. During a certain period chinoiseries, representations of oriental scenes on red lacquer, were the fashion.
The harpsichord was born in Europe early in the 14th century, probably in Italy, and the oldest instrument that has survived to our days dates from 1521. Composers, in general, began to write specifically for the instrument in the 16th century, as is the case of the English virginalists - Byrd, Farnaby, Gibbons. In the following century, harpsichord music was responsible for the appearance of a new style - that of free music, which originated the prelude, the fantasia, the toccata - represented in Italy mainly by Frescobaldi. Still in the 17th century, now in France, a harpsichord school appeared whose style is by excellence that of the instrument, developed by authors such as Louis Couperin, Chambonnières and D’Anglebert, and that influenced the next generations. Finally, in the 18th century, the instrument reached its apogee and was tied to the musical production of the greatest names of that time, and to some of the greatest composers of western music of all time, such as J.S. Bach, Haendel, Scarlatti, Rameau, François Couperin.
The fundamental role played by the harpsichord in European music for three centuries is evident, not only through the repertoire that is devoted to it, but also through its use as an instrument for harmonic accompaniment, in charge of the basso continuo - which is one of the pillars of the appearance of the tonal system itself. The harpsichord was used for chamber and orchestra music, as well as in theater - Mozart used the instrument in recitatives until 1791, in La Clemenza di Tito. Not only the organ, but also the harpsichord was used in churches in cantatas and oratorios.
With the appearance of Romanticism the harpsichord starts being used less and less, for it did not correspond to the new aesthetic ideals that were appearing. The need for a greater dynamic amplitude and also for greater volume in order to face concert halls of larger dimensions than the halls of baroque palaces let instruments with more sound power take the place of older instruments. However, the harpsichord did not completely disappear in the 19th century, and was still used for learning keyboards (Verdi and Bizet were some composers who initiated their musical studies with this instrument) and was also used in smaller concerts by musicians such as Moscheles and Diémer.
However, at the beginning of the 20th century, Wanda Landowska, a polish pianist whose repertoire interests were centered mainly on the music made prior to 1800, once again calls attention to the harpsichord. Her proposal is that it be used both for the interpretation of music from the past and contemporary music. Since then, there has been a true revolution in the way so-called early music is played, not only concerning its interpretation, but also in regards to the use of instruments. Copies of valuable instrument from that period have been used, as well as, in many cases, the original instruments themselves, restored. In addition to its use for music composed in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, the harpsichord attracted the interest of contemporary composers since the beginning of the 20th century, such as de Falla, Poulenc, Martin, Henze, Cage, Ligeti, who have composed works for it.