Five Clavichords Attributed to Johann Heinrich Silbermann

This page has been completely revised and updated, August 2015

As long ago as March 2002, I published an article on this web-site about five surviving unsigned eighteenth-century clavichords that have traditionally been attributed to Johann Heinrich Silbermann (1727–1799) [hereafter JHS]. All have the compass FF–f 3; for five-octave unfretted instruments, they are remarkably compact. They are as follows:

  1. Boalch: JH 1775(A)(1)[1]. Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, No. MIR 1061. A drawing is published by the museum.[2]

  2. Boalch: JH 1775(A)(2). Berlin, Musikinstrumentenmuseum des Staatlisches Instituts für Musikforschung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, No. 598. [2]

  3. Boalch: JH 1775(A)(3). Berlin, Musikinstrumentenmuseum des SIMPK, No. 914.

  4. Boalch: JH 1775(A)(4). Vienna, Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, No. I 521.

  5. Boalch: JH 1775(A)(5). Paris, Musée de la Musique, No. 980.2.666.

In view of the fact that other stringed keyboard instruments by JHS bear his signature in the form of a very characteristic style of paper label, whereas these clavichords are all unsigned, I suggested that the time might have come to examine more closely the basis of the traditional attribution. Since the original web-page was published, more information about these instruments has come to light. The situation can now be summarised as follows:

The origins of the attribution
The idea that a group of similar but unsigned clavichords might be the work of JHS seems to have its origin in the ground-breaking catalogue of the Berlin Musical Instrument Museum by Curt Sachs (1881–1959), published in 1922.
[3] Sachs identified a group of five clavichords which he believed resembled each other in all essential details (‘einander bis auf unwesentliche Kleinigkeiten völlig gleichen’):

Sachs was convinced by similarities he perceived between these five instruments and the signed fortepiano by JHS that is also in the Berlin collection (the Museum’s No. 12) that all six instruments were ‘without doubt’ made by JHS (‘steht es ausser allem Zweifel, dass diese Instrumente Arbeiten Johann Heinrich Silbermanns in Strassburg … sind’).

Was Sachs referring to the same five clavichords?
Sachs’s five clavichords are not exactly the same as the five surviving instruments listed at the head of this article. The two Berlin clavichords (Nos. 2 and 3) are the same, and the instrument formerly owned by Zelter is the one now in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg (No. 1 in the list). Joseph Joachim’s instrument, however, was destroyed in the Second World War (according to a 1956 letter from Karl Lütge to Heinrich Spitta). The instrument in Paris (No. 5 in the list) might also not be one of those mentioned by Sachs. It previously belonged to Mme Geneviève de Chambure; it has not been established when and from whom she acquired it. It could possibly be the one ‘exported to Russia’; it may be a sixth, different instrument, not known to Sachs when he compiled the 1922 catalogue. As for the instrument in Vienna (No. 4 in the list), its provenance is obscure, and in my opinion its resemblance to the other four is quite superficial. The detailed differences are so significant that I think Sachs would probably not have regarded it as ‘similar in all essential details’; therefore it is unlikely to be one of those identified by him as the work of JHS.

Wide acceptance of the attribution
Thus, of the five clavichords in my original enquiry, two (Nos. 4 and 5) may not be among those identified by Sachs as being the work of JHS. Nonetheless, all five have been confidently attributed to JHS in various secondary sources.
[5] This attribution was confirmed in the second edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, in the article ‘Silbermann’, the author of this being Philippe Fritsch, whose doctoral dissertation Les Ateliers Alsacien et Saxon de la Dynastie Silbermann was accepted by the University of Tours in 1996. Disappointingly, Fritsch merely accepted without further consideration what had become by then the traditional attribution. Moreover, he accepted without query the attribution to JHS of two other clavichords which are much more doubtful candidates: see below.

Confirmation of the attribution for three of the five
The clavichord maker Dietrich Hein has recently examined the clavichord in Nuremberg and the two in Berlin (Nos. 1, 2 and 3). In his preliminary report, published in Tangents, the Bulletin of the Boston Clavichord Society (No. 37, Winter 2014), he has expressed the view that these three clavichords are ‘undoubtedly from the same workshop’, and comparisons by him with two spinets signed by JHS and with the fortepiano by JHS in Berlin ‘reveal a number of common features’ that lead to the conclusion that all these instruments are indeed the work of JHS. The most striking connection between them is in certain hidden details in the execution of the keyboards. Dietrich has promised to give more details in a future article.

Some other similarities between clavichords 1, 2, 3 and 5 had already been noticed, particularly the very distinctive and unusual moulding around the top edge of the case and the hinges and locks of a distinctive design. There are differences, too: No. 3 (Berlin 914), for example, is the only one of these four to have a toolbox to the left of the keys. This instrument and No. 1 (Nuremberg MIR 1061) are the only known clavichords to have the distinctive ‘Silbermann’ rose (based on a triangle inscribed within a circle), which is found in at least one spinet signed by JHS.[6] The roses found in Nos. 2 and 5 resemble each other, but are of a different design.

Nonetheless, despite these differences I am convinced by Dietrich Hein’s research that Nos. 1, 2 and 3 are almost certainly by JHS. This may be true, too, of No. 5, the clavichord in Paris, but that has not yet been examined in the same detail.

Two other clavichords
Two other clavichords have been linked with JHS. Both were accepted as genuine by Fritsch, but in my opinion are highly unlikely to be by JHS:

This page incorporates information, published and unpublished, from many people besides myself, particularly Lothar Bemmann, Christopher Clarke, Dietrich Hein, Gerard Tuinman and Beverly Woodward: my thanks to them and to everyone else who has contacted me. Any errors are my responsibility. Please e-mail me with any comments or corrections.


[1] References to ‘Boalch’ are to Donald H. Boalch: Makers of the Harpsichord and Clavichord 1440–1840, third edition, edited by Charles Mould, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1995. [return]

[2] According to Lothar Bemmann, both the Berlin clavichords were the gift of Philipp Spitta (1841–1894). [return]

[3] Curt Sachs: Sammlung alter Musikinstrumente bei der Staatlichen Hochschule für Musik zu Berlin: Beschreibender Katalog, Berlin, J. Bard, 1922. [return]

[4] The attribution to JHS in this case was made by Friedrich Ernst (1897–1976), who restored the instrument in Berlin. See Victor Luithlen (ed.): Katalog der Sammlung alter Musikinstrumente: Saitenklaviere, Vienna, 1966. [return]

[5] It is worth noting, however, that the Musée de la Musique in Paris has quite recently removed all reference to Silbermann from their web-site information about clavichord No. 5. [return]

[6] The following instruments have both the distinctive JHS paper label and the distinctive rose:

Two spinets in the Bach-Haus, Eisenach (Nos. 75 and 76) have the distinctive rose; however, the labels formerly attached to them were facsimiles added by the collector Paul de Wit (1852–1925) and these have now been removed by the museum (information from Gerard Tuinman and Lothar Bemmann). [return]

[7] Gerard Tuinman: ‘The “Silbermann” Clavichord in the Collection of the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague: Description and Possible Attribution’ in Clavichord International, Vol. 18 No. 2 (November 2014). [return]

Peter Bavington, March 2002, updated December 2003, March 2011, August 2013, completely revised August 2015.