Unlike any other keyboard, the clavichord puts the player in direct contact with the strings at all times. The action is very simple: a single pivoted lever with the player's finger at one end and a metal blade (the tangent) at the other. The tangent strikes the strings (two per note) and causes them to sound; at the same time it defines the sounding length. A note sounds only while the tangent remains in contact.
As with a violin, you must learn how to produce and sustain the tone. An ordinary harpsichord or piano technique may not produce good results. But the clavichord is a good teacher, showing up every fault, and can improve your performance on those instruments.
A clavichord cannot be really loud, but a good one need not be all that quiet. Say rather that it requires quiet in its surroundings: if the room and its environment are right, a clavichord can be an effective recital instrument, and this is happening more and more. Still, it is pre-eminently an instrument to have in the home.
Since the invention of stringed keyboard instruments, the clavichord has always had a place alongside the others; its eclipse in the late nineteenth century was partial and temporary. It is now enjoying something of a renaissance, largely because a better understanding of historical instruments has improved the quality of those being made today.
My own clavichords were based on careful historical and acoustical research. I looked on the old makers as teachers, but did not necessarily copy them in every detail. Every possible care was taken to achieve a beautiful sound, a reliable, sensitive action, and stability of tuning.
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What does it mean to say that a clavichord is fretted? It means that – for part of the compass, anyway – more than one note is obtained from the same pair of strings. The tangents of two or more adjacent notes strike the strings at different distances from the bridge, producing different notes. This works in exactly the same way as the frets on a guitar or lute, hence the term.
On most of the clavichords that I have made, no more than two adjacent notes are fretted together (see below for the one exception). Each natural note has its own pair of strings, which in some cases is shared with an adjacent accidental note: I call this diatonic fretting.
Strictly speaking, any kind of fretting will place some limitations on what you can play, since it is not possible to sound the linked notes at the same time. Occasionally you may have to curtail a note by lifting the finger before it has sounded for its full value: very occasionally you may have to omit a note altogether. But with diatonic fretting, such problems are rare.
Skill is required when playing the linked notes one after another; you will produce an ugly sound if there is any overlap, particularly when descending a scale. With practice, though, it is possible to produce a legato, and to play rapid ornaments, even when all the notes involved are from a single pair of strings.
Playing the fretted clavichord thus requires judgment and technique – just like playing any instrument, really. And there are advantages, both practical and musical: a more compact instrument, simpler tuning, certainly, but also a better action geometry and a more lively response, since fewer strings are adding their tension to the structure.
Clavichord makers tend to prefer fretted instruments because they often turn out to be more lively and exciting to play.
The onlyfretted clavichord in my list that did not have diatonic fretting was the Early Spanish clavichord, which had up to four notes obtained from each pair of strings. I call this multiple-fretting; the system dates back to the very origins of the clavichord in the fourteenth century. It is suitable for pre-1600 music and a surprising amount of later music, but there are certainly some pieces which you simply cannot perform on a multiple-fretted instrument like this one.
A list of surviving multiple-fretted clavichords is here.
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