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Quilled Keyboard Instruments and Clavichords

Historical keyboard instruments are one of the main focal points of the museum’s collection. From the second half of the 14th century on, there is evidence of stringed instruments which are played by means of a keyboard. Before the 18th century, there were basically only two ways of sound generation: in quilled keyboard instruments, the strings are plugged with a quill; harpsichords, spinets and virginals are of this instrument type. In clavichords, the strings are struck by a tangent and thereby put into vibration. But unlike in quilled keyboard instruments, the complete string does not vibrate, but only the part right from the striking point, the rest of the string is silenced by strips of cloth.

Harpsichord, Cat.-No. 320 (Flash)

Harpsichords and other quilled keyboard instruments do not have any responsiveness to keyboard touch - no matter how hard the player strikes the key, the volume of the tone does not change. With clavichords this is a different mattter: Since the tangent sits directly at the far end of the key lever, the player can determine the keyboard touch and gradually change the volume. However, the clavichord is a rather quiet instrument overall.

Clavichord, Cat.-No. 227 (Flash)

Only the invention of the fortepiano at the end of the 17th century allowed for the combination of the instrument’s responsiveness to keyboard touch and full sound. The new dynamic possibilities of the fortepiano supported its rapid ascent. In the end, the new instrument replaced the clavichord and the quilled keyboard instruments in musical practice.