CLAVICHORD MAKING in the 1890s and today

Peter Bavington, Clavichord Maker

This essay appeared in the Summer 2007 issue of the William Morris Society Newsletter

Morris said the other night, ‘What I think about music (contemptuously) I shall never tell anyone.’ But I think I know pretty well what he thinks about it. He likes a tune, anything simple, but as soon as it gets elaborate he hates it.1

Morris was not the only Victorian to find himself uncomfortable with the music of his own time. The late nineteenth-century symphonic repertoire, great and enduring as it has proved to be, can from a certain perspective be accused of a rather coarse emotionalism; and the discipline it demands from orchestral players, whose first duty is to follow the ever-more-precise directions of the score and the conductor rather than to express their individuality, can perhaps seem uncomfortably reminiscent of the hated factory system.

Some of those who reacted in this way looked to the past for relief: not to the distant Middle Ages, like Pugin and Morris, but to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a period when music – secular music, anyway – was mostly small-scale and domestic. Luckily, by this date an effective system of musical notation had been developed, and an enormous amount of music, long unperformed, was preserved in libraries. During the second half of the nineteenth century there was a growing movement to re-discover and perform it. Here was a repertoire that could touch the heart, but did not make such challenging demands on the technique and stamina of performer and listener.

Re-creating this music went hand-in-hand with re-creating its instruments. Most of the nineteenth-century orchestral instruments – the woodwinds with their excrescence of metal keys, the horns and trumpets with their piston valves, the double-action harps with their hidden paraphernalia of rods and linkages, the pianos with their cast iron frames and complex mechanical actions – are creations of engineering rather than handcraft, implying a factory system of production (instruments of the violin family are perhaps an exception, though they too were mass-produced in factories). The earlier forms of these instruments are much simpler objects, which can be made by an individual craftsman with suitable skills.

Despite his alleged unmusicality, there is no doubt that William Morris inspired and encouraged this revival of early-musical-instrument making. In England the most significant pioneer in the field was, of course, Arnold Dolmetsch (1858–1940), whose friendship with Morris seems to date from late 1893 or early 1894. Dolmetsch had recently moved into a large house in Dulwich, and began a series of concerts there which attracted many of the intelligentsia, including Burne-Jones and Morris. Not every visitor to Dulwich was impressed:

At last the six viols make their ancient novel music. How strange the tone of these old instruments – what a far-off tinkling of youthfulness. They cannot express the subtlety nor the volume of our modern emotion... Men must have been half crickets when this music satisfied them.2

One could hardly ask for a clearer expression of the musical taste of the time. Morris, however, seems to have found himself, somewhat to his own surprise, moved and impressed. The knowledge that Dolmetsch was also a talented craftsman cemented their friendship; and three years later, when Morris was in his final illness, Dolmetsch brought his sixteenth-century Italian virginal to Kelmscott House, and performed several pieces by English sixteenth-century composers. Sydney Cockerell noted in his diary ‘WM enjoyed it extremely, but was a good deal affected’.3

Dolmetsch had previously restored a number of antique keyboard instruments; around this time he began to make new ones. Among these were a harpsichord – made at the suggestion of Morris himself 4 – and a group of six large clavichords, their design based on an eighteenth-century instrument by Johann Adolph Hass. These were the first clavichords to be made anywhere since about 18405; but the instrument had dropped out of common use about 50 years before that, with the advent of the mass-produced pianoforte.

I should perhaps explain, for the benefit of WMS members who have not already encountered the clavichord at the recitals given by Byron Mahoney and Bridget Cunningham at Kelmscott House, exactly what kind of instrument it is. A clavichord is a keyboard instrument, normally taking the form of a shallow rectangular box with keys arranged along one of the long sides. Metal strings run laterally across from left to right; towards the left-hand end they are permanently damped by strips of cloth, and at the right-hand end they pass over a bridge standing on a soundboard.

What makes it a clavichord, though, is not the shape and the arrangement of the strings, but the way in which the sounds are produced. Mechanically this is of the utmost simplicity: each key is at the front end of a lever which pivots so that the back part rises when the key is depressed. In the back part of the lever is fixed a blade, called the tangent, which rises to strike the strings – usually two to a note – setting the part between the tangent and the bridge vibrating and isolating it from the damping cloth. The tangent remains pressed against the strings for as long as the key is held down; on releasing the key, the sound is immediately stopped by the damping cloth at the left-hand end.

For four centuries before 1800, the stringed keyboard instruments in common use were the clavichord and the harpsichord. These are often treated together, but from the point of view of player and maker they are very different. In the harpsichord, depressing a key causes the string to be plucked and then left to vibrate freely until the key is released, when a damper comes into play and stops the sound. As player, you have (in a well-adjusted harpsichord) very precise control over the start and end of each note, but you cannot really affect the sound: that is provided by the instrument. Harpsichord technique is a matter of finding the right notes in the right order, timing them precisely, and controlling the silences between them.

When playing the clavichord, you have to do all that, of course, but you also have to produce the sound itself: you cannot just jab a finger on to the right key and expect the sound to come. The key needs firm support from the finger, otherwise you will get a thin-sounding tone, or merely a click. The fact that you can make a weak or ugly sound is actually an advantage. You cannot play mechanically: you must think the beginning, middle and end of each note; you must listen to the sound you produce; you must be aware of each detail in the music.

Because your finger is in direct contact, through the tangent, with the vibrating strings, you have some control over the way the note develops. As well as attacking more or less forcefully, you can to some extent control the volume of the note as it continues, and you can introduce a slight pitch-bending or vibrato – a valuable effect, but tasteless if overdone. In all these ways the clavichord is closer than any other keyboard to a melody instrument like the violin or clarinet, where the player as much as the instrument creates the sound.

People who are not used to the clavichord sometimes complain of its quietness. It is true that, as a way of putting energy into the strings, the tangent action is comparatively inefficient, and the clavichord cannot therefore compete with other instruments in absolute volume of sound; moreover, its music can easily be overwhelmed by ambient noise. But when playing – if the instrument is any good – you are not conscious of this alleged quietness. In any case, the clavichord does not have to be as quiet as all that. Some are markedly louder than others, and in my view loudness, or perhaps I should say responsiveness, is definitely a virtue. On an unresponsive instrument it is hard work for the player simply to produce an audible sound, and subtleties tend to go by the board. A responsive one not only is more enjoyable to play, but also makes it possible to play more expressively. Achieving this kind of responsiveness is the special challenge that the clavichord maker faces.

In the years following 1894 Arnold Dolmetsch and a few other craftsmen, in America and continental Europe as well as here in Great Britain, continued the revival of clavichord and harpsichord making. The usual pattern was for them to be produced in small workshops with up to a score of workers, organised hierarchically around a single ‘master’, perhaps in conscious imitation of the guild-regulated workshops of earlier centuries.

However, even though making early musical instruments meant choosing to swim against the tide of the times, contemporary pressures and expectations could not altogether be escaped. The robust self-confidence and belief in progress of the Victorian era intruded even here. There was a tendency to look on surviving antique instruments as rather primitive, and to prefer designs and methods derived from the contemporary piano industry. Thus, for example, clavichords were made with rather thick soundboards with numerous bars; the bottom of the soundbox, enclosed on the old instruments, was opened up; and keylevers were heavily weighted with lead – all features derived from piano practice.

Contemporary musical taste, too, made itself felt. This was the age of the seamless legato line and, on stringed instruments, continuous vibrato: to facilitate both on the clavichord, the strings were made thinner and bridges heavier than on antique originals.

There was yet another factor driving the revival clavichord makers away from their historical roots: the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement, under whose aegis the revival had begun. It was the craftsman’s duty to create, which meant making something new; copying was a suitable training for beginners, but the mature artist-craftsman should strike out on his own. Arnold Dolmetsch expressed this in the introduction to a catalogue of his instruments which appeared in 1929:

In 1894 I began making clavichords, copies of a fine large instrument in my possession. . . These instruments succeeded well, but I understood that copying other people’s work, the best training for a beginner, should only be a step to higher achievements. The masters did not copy one another. Feeling that I had imagination and skill, I endeavoured henceforth to realize my own ideals.6

As a result of all this, a rather paradoxical situation developed as the twentieth century progressed. The apparent aim was to perform old music on the instruments for which it had been conceived; yet the instruments actually employed in this endeavour diverged more and more from the historical originals.

Early music remained for many years a minority interest, set apart from the mainstream of musical culture which went on much as before. Some celebrated performers, notably Wanda Landowska, took up the harpsichord and made a certain impact; but the clavichord was little known. A change came in the years after the second world war. As the world recovered from that cataclysm, musicians and audiences began to turn their attention to the earlier repertoire in far greater numbers than before: maybe they felt that they had had enough of big forces and big emotions for the time being. When it came to performing the older music, hallowed traditions were called into question. Anything that smacked of ponderousness or over-sentimentality went out of fashion, and a lighter, crisper style of performance came in.

In the instrument-making field, a new generation of makers began to look afresh at the surviving antiques, studying them in more detail and with more humility than before. As previously in the late nineteenth century, the main focus of attention was on the harpsichord. A group of young makers, notably Frank Hubbard and William Down in America and Martin Skowroneck and Rainer Schutze in Germany, began to challenge the methods of the revival workshops, and to insist that the music was better served by close copies of named original antiques.

This was little short of a revolution, and there was resistance. The revival workshops had now been comfortably established for many years and had their own cherished traditions; moreover, players and audiences had become used to the revival instruments. In the German musical press, there was a vigorous exchange of letters and articles in the 1960’s which became known as the ‘battle of the harpsichords’. But the new historically-oriented harpsichords were so obviously superior, their sound both louder and more beautiful than that of the revival harpsichords, that they fairly quickly won the day.

With the clavichord, the situation was more complicated. Although in the years before 1939 the clavichord had been very much a minority cult, it had attracted the attention of some distinguished musicians, including composers. A small but important corpus of new music had been written with the sound of the revival clavichord in mind. Typically it was extremely quiet, much quieter than an antique clavichord; yet in the hands of a maker like Thomas Goff it achieved an extraordinarily sweet, long-sustained tone, with great sensitivity to effects achieved through variations of touch.

Antique clavichords typically have a design that favours a louder sound, with a more pronounced attack to each note but a shorter sustain, and it was hard at first for players to give up the sweet sound of the revival instruments, particularly as the historical type also demands a rather different technique. In Great Britain, as opposed to America or continental Europe, the cult of the revival clavichord was particularly strong; so, whereas this country had been in the forefront of the revival of the clavichord, it was many years before the historical type gained acceptance here.

Eventually, though, some of the best players began to discover and enjoy the more vigorous effect of the new clavichords, and to rediscover the art of phrasing, which came so much more naturally and effectively on these instruments: they began, as it were, to put the consonants back into the music, where the seamless-legato style only had vowels.

So we come to the clavichord scene at the present time. Although it is still little known and understood even in musical circles, the instrument is enjoying a minor renaissance. Perhaps this is in reaction to all the mechanically produced, amplified music that assaults us on all sides nowadays: the clavichord’s music, in contrast, is personal, intimate and literally hand-made. Although no-one can make a career of clavichord playing alone, some of the best keyboard players have taken up the instrument as a complement to their other activities. More clavichord recordings (of varying quality) have appeared, and Clavichord Societies have been formed in several countries, including Great Britain. Nor is the role of the clavichord confined to early or ‘classical’ music: pop music has used it occasionally, though seemingly more as a kind of exotic flavour than through any deep understanding of its special character and musical potential.

The centre of clavichord making today is probably continental Europe, where I can think of ten or a dozen makers of the first rank. In the U.K. there are two or three; in the North America perhaps half a dozen. In contrast to the group workshops of the past, most of these makers work single-handedly, or perhaps with one assistant. This has advantages, because the quality of the instruments benefits from the close attention and judgment of an experienced maker applied to every part and process. But one of the things that troubles me about it is that it means our instruments are quite expensive. If we are not exactly ‘ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich’, in Morris’s unforgettable phrase, we do rely on the support of the comparatively well-heeled.

In my own workshop in London I work alone, or at times with the help of a part-time assistant. Almost every part of the instrument is made by me – even the tangents and tuning pins. One reason for this is that there are so many different types and sizes of clavichord, each requiring parts of different dimensions, that there is not much scope for mass manufacture of these parts. And whereas with a harpsichord you can, without doing much harm, adapt the design to accommodate parts such as tuning pins that may happen to be available, on the clavichord any such decision would risk spoiling the design. Nothing on a clavichord is incidental or unimportant: almost anything can affect the sound and touch of the instrument.

Because of the current philosophy there is a lot of pressure on clavichord makers to confine themselves to strict copying (or at least, to pretend to). Nowadays any maker who proclaims, in Dolmetsch’s words, that he has ‘imagination and skill’ and that he is ‘attempting to realize [his] own ideals’ is rather looked at askance: it would be a quick way to lose most of your customers.

My own view is that we should treat the designs that we have inherited from past centuries with respect: they are the product of long years of trial and error, and we must be very certain that we know better before we think of doing something different. Nonetheless, I am sure that copying alone cannot automatically produce a successful instrument. It is quite difficult, anyway, to make an exact copy of any object made of wood; but even if it is dimensionally precise, its sound and playing characteristics may be far from anything the original maker would have recognised. This is confirmed, I think, by the fact that so-called ‘copies’ of the same instrument made by different modern makers sometimes sound completely different because of subtly different choices made during the construction and setting-up.

Like any other craftsperson, ancient or modern, the maker must use his own skill and judgment to achieve the results he has in mind: he cannot avoid this responsibility. The instrument he makes will be the embodiment of his own ideas, will in fact express his own personality, whether he intends it or not. So I never call my clavichords ‘copies’: they are modern instruments, but with any luck they will bear a family resemblance to the instruments of the past that I have based them on.


1. Robert Catterson-Smith, 23 December 1895, quoted in Mary Lago (ed.), Burne-Jones Talking, London, John Murray, 1981

2. Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper, writing as ‘Michael Field’ in Works and Days, London, 1933 (quoted by Derek Adlam in ‘Arts & Crafts and the Clavichord – the revival of Early Instrument Building in England’, in B. Brauchli, S. Brauchli and A. Galazzo (eds.) De Clavicordio II, Magnano, 1995).

3. Quoted in Fiona MacCarthy, William Morris, London Faber & Faber, 1994, p. 669

4. Now in the study collection of the Horniman Museum, London.

5. No. 1 is now in the Bate Collection of Musical Instruments at the University of Oxford; No. 2 is in the Museum of Instruments of the Royal College of Music, London; No. 3 is in the Museo degli Strumenti Musicali, Milan. The whereabouts of No. 4 are not known. No. 5 belongs to Colin Tilney; No. 6 is in the Russell Collection of Early Keyboard Instruments at the University of Edinburgh. Only Nos. 5 and 6 are in regular musical use at the present time. See also Jenny Nex and Lance Whitehead, ‘The Six Early Clavichords of Arnold Dolmetsch: their Construction and Inspiration’ in The Galpin Society Journal No. LIII, April 2000.

6. Quoted in John Barnes, ‘The Parallel between the Harpsichord and Clavichord Revivals in the Twentieth Century’ in De Clavicordio II (see note 2).