Clavichord decoration

[This first appeared as Workshop News, August 2007]

A couple of weeks ago I spent several days carving the tops of the keylevers of my new Lima clavichord in the traditional ‘roof’ shape. It takes some time to do properly, partly because the traditional system involves some carving against the direction of the grain on the cranked keylevers. Why bother?

Actually, this is quite a good question. Nearly every antique clavichord, however humble its origins, has the keylevers carved – usually in this same roof pattern. Some modern makers leave them flat unless specially requested otherwise.

It is sometimes claimed that the removal of material behind the balance point helps the dynamic balance of the keys; but I doubt very much whether this is the real reason for the old makers’ almost universal choice. No, it is a decorative feature: and certainly, it dramatically improves the appearance of the keylevers, which look very bald without it.

Why did old makers go to so much trouble over the appearance of their instruments, even when they were sometimes rather casual about the workmanship of parts which did not show? And should we necessarily feel obliged to copy them?

I think the reason is that musicians respond better to an instrument whose appearance suggests that it has been made with care. The impulse to make your instrument a thing of beauty extends even to the humblest folk fiddle or bagpipe.

Decoration on instruments is of two kinds. It may be a matter of applied ornament: good examples of this being the fanciful treatments applied to late-nineteenth-century piano cases. Usually, though, it expresses in some way the construction and acoustical function of the various parts of an instrument. This kind of decoration could be said to be intrinsic: the lovely harmonic curve of the neck of a harp is a good example, or the decorative rosette that surrounds the essential sound-hole in the table of a guitar. The scroll on the neck of a violin expresses the form of the pegbox; the slightly sinister serpentine shape of a modern grand piano is a function of the need for a stiff rim, and its extra-wide tail reflects the way that treble and bass strings cross.

Electronic instruments seem to be exempt from this kind of treatment, since their shape and decoration cannot be derived in any meaningful way from the circuits within: perhaps as a result of this, some of them are among the ugliest objects that have ever been used for music.

The carving on clavichord keylevers emphasises their varying angles, arising from their essential function in relating the position of the tangents to that of the keys – a clear case of intrinsic decoration, and to leave it off somehow impoverishes the instrument.

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