Harpsichord by Alan Gotto, 2015, Norwich, UK
After Anonymous, 1667, Paris, now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Single Manual, GG/BB-c’’’, 2×8’, with short and broken octave (Split CC# and DD# keys with front halves sounding AA & BB) a=392, non-transposing.
This harpsichord represents the native, 17th-century, French harpsichord building tradition. Influenced by the lute building tradition, the 17th-century French harpsichord was a petite instrument. From their GG/BB-c3 range and 6-1/8″ octave span keyboard, to their lightly braced construction to their small jacks and light stringing and quilling.
My 1667’s sound is incredibly colorful. The back 8′ is creamy with a kind of woodsy quality. And the front 8′ has a pleasant, bright piquancy – not at all jangly or coarse. And the tenor and bass sections have a delightful reedy quality, with tremendous resonance. With both choirs combined, the colorful sound has maximum potency that almost defies words. And the low pitch of 392 gives a beautifully dark and dusky sound.
Although the range of the original 1667 anonymous harpsichord is currently GG/AA-d”’, signatory evidence on the underside of the instrument shows that this is the result of a structural enlargement (ravalement) performed in 1739 by Joseph Collasse in Lyon. The original range was clearly GG/BB-c’’’.
My instrument follows this standard range, with the addition of the broken octave in the bass.
Small Keyboards and Short and Broken Octave-Basses
A unique feature of native, 17th-century French harpsichord keyboards is their size. They used a narrow octave span of 6-1/8,” with the overall key lengths and widths being slightly smaller than the French keyboards produced later in the 17th-century and forward, which used 6-1/4″ octave spans. The sharps were also made of solid bone, as opposed to being topped with slips of bone, which later came to be the dominant fashion in French harpsichord building.
Another – though for many people confusing – feature of native, 17th-century French harpsichord keyboards, is their short and sometimes broken octave basses.
In the short octave set-up, the lowest bass notes of the harpsichord are tuned to notes lower than what their physical key would indicate. For example, the lowest key, which looks like BB, is tuned to sound GG, a third lower. The CC# and DD# keys are tuned to sound AA and BB, respectively (BB could also easily be tuned to BB-flat). This set-up allows for you to play those low GG’s, AA’s and BB’s without having to have a whole extra octave of keys in the bass, hence the term “short octave.”
The broken octave set-up is directly-related to the short-octave set up. As you probably have noticed, a short-octave set-up means the low notes, CC# and EEb are not available since they are tuned to AA and BB. A broken octave set-up was often added to the short -octave to over come this problem. The CC# and EEb keys would be split, or broken in half, into two keys. The back halves of each key sound CC# and EEb and the front halves sound AA and BB, as show in the picture of my instrument above.
Implications of the Octave on 17th-century French Harpsichords
Although native 17th-century French harpsichord music didn’t make use of low CC# or EEb, the harpsichord music of 17th-century, Austro-German composer Johann Jakob Froberger did – and Froberger composed pieces de clavecin in the French harpsichord and lute style. As well, 17th-century French lute music – which gave birth to the 17th-century French harpsichord idiom – frequently used these low CC# and EEb notes. Given the French lute idiom’s musical influence, then, along with the presence of the broken octave set-up on 17th century French harpsichords, I am convinced that the 17th-century French lute repertoire was in fact being performed by harpsichordists in the early and mid 17th-century, as they worked to create and sculpt their own style and idiom.
Physical Harpsichord Technique Implications
The short and broken octave bass gives one a sense of “magic” in playing low bass notes in octaves (GG, AA, BB) since your hand hardly has to expand to play the notes. But an even greater sense of magic comes when you play works of Louis Couperin, Chambonnières or D’Anglebert, which call for chord intervals in the bass of a 12th, such as AA-E (Louis Couperin, Allemande in D-major, No. 58, m. 20, Moroney edition). These passages in fact require a short octave bass-setup — they are not playable on later harpsichords as written with a chromatic bass.