[For picture (67K), click here].

Following the conquest and colonisation of South America in the early sixteenth century, Spanish Jesuits were given the task of civilising the native population. They brought with them the musical culture of contemporary Europe, including instruments such as the organ, harp, guitar and clavichord. Native craftsmen were trained to make these instruments, and they continued to do so long after Spanish rule in the New World had collapsed. Whereas in Europe musical instruments evolved, in the New World the original sixteenth century types continued to be made with very little change.

Several of these South American clavichords have survived. Their style and layout is that of the sixteenth-century European originals; since hardly any clavichords from this period have survived in Europe itself, these New World clavichords are valuable for the ‘fossilised’ evidence they contain.

My ‘Early Spanish’ clavichord is based on one of these instruments, which was discovered in Lima, Peru in 1998 by Ana Savarain de Graf and written-up by Alfons Huber in De Clavicordio IV (published by the International Centre for Clavichord Studies, Magnano, 2001). It has three straight bridges on the soundboard, arranged at right angles to the long case sides. There are no bridge-pins: instead, a thin wire is mounted in the top of each bridge, and the strings are held down against it by ‘hold-downs’ attached to the soundboard a little way to the left of the bridges. There are 44 strings (22 pairs) all running right across the instrument from left to right: by means of ‘multiple-fretting’ in groups of three and four these are made to provide 45 notes C/E to .

The sound is extremely bold. Because of the way the bridges and ‘hold-downs’ are arranged on the soundboard, there are two ’registers’ with a definite break between a and b♭. The treble has the character of a Baroque guitar; the bass is more nasal (probably it is fanciful to see here a reflection of the ‘divided’ registers so prevalent on Iberian organs). It works well for Spanish polyphonic music, and dances such as Lo Ballo dell’ Intorcia by Valente, and it is fabulous for improvising on a ground such as La Folia.

Outline specification:

Compass: C/E-c³, with ‘short octave’ in the bass.

Pitch: =466 Hz, a little above standard modern pitch.

Fretted in groups of three and four (multiple fretting)

Temperament: a form of fifth-comma mean-tone, with the accidental notes D#/E♭ and G#/A♭ in compromise positions, to serve either as sharps or flats. The other accidentals are C#, F# and B♭.

Size: 1085 × 330 × 114 mm

Strung in brass. The three notes of the short octave have specially-made twined strings.

Keyboard: Naturals of box, sharps of pearwood, capped with ebony slips; keyfronts carved in a trefoil pattern. The keylevers themselves are made of lime with traditional roof-carving.

Case: Chestnut, with oil finish.

Soundboard: Made of european spruce, with a decorative rose. There are three straight bridges (bass, tenor and treble) and two ‘hold-downs’, attached to the soundboard, which keep the strings in contact with the tops of the bridges. There is a so-called ‘second soundboard’ underneath the keys, with a second rose which can just be seen between the splayed keylevers.

The instrument has a tool-box at the left-hand end of the keyboard, and is supplied with tuning key, stringing tool and wedge.

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