Pianoforte vs. Harpsichord

It is during the years of the Regency that the popularity of these two musical instruments intersect, one rising, the other waning. In fact, many of the more affluent homes during this period had both keyboard instruments. But though they are somewhat similar in appearance, they are very different in terms of their construction, their "touch" when being played, and the quality and volume of the sounds which they can produce.

A number of musical instrument makers produced both types of instruments during these years. Many notable composers composed music for both instruments, including Bach, Mozart, Handel, Haydn, Beethoven, and Scarlatti. Yet, by the time the Regency was over, the pianoforte had won out over the harpsichord. The victory was so complete that vast numbers of harpsichords were destroyed all over Europe. In the Paris Conservatory, for example, they were smashed and used as firewood.

The harpsichord is the older of the two instruments, dating from the end of fourteenth century. The oldest known surviving harpsichord dates from 1521. From the Renaissance into the eighteenth century, the instrument continued to be improved in both design and construction by the various makers across Europe. Though harpsichords grew in popularity in England during this time, the majority of the quality instruments were imports. It was not until the mid-eighteenth century that a distinct harpsichord-making industry grew up in England. This coincided with the expanding and affluent aristocracy which was developing a refined taste in all of the arts during the Enlightenment. Harpsichords became a common feature of many music or drawing rooms.

A harpsichord case is similar in shape to that of a baby grand piano, though it is typically longer from front to back and narrower. In addition, the concave "bentside" is quite shallow, with a sharp angle terminating the point, rather than the flowing curves of a grand piano’s bentside. Until the very late eighteenth century, the legs of the case were quite long, since the instrument was played standing up. By 1790, cases were designed with shorter legs so that the keyboard, called a manual, was lowered, comfortably accessible from a seated position. Many harpsichords at this time had two keyboards, one above the other. This feature had been introduced in Flanders in the early 1600s, and was perfected by the French makers to allow for more rapid changes while playing. Double-keyboard harpsichords were considered to be symbolic of elegance and refinement during the Enlightenment period. Single-keyboard instruments were still available for the less discerning. Harpsichord keys, both white and black, were slightly slimmer than pianoforte keys. Keys were often made of wood rather than ivory.

When the keys on the keyboard(s) were depressed, a jack, a strip of wood to which a small plectrum of crow or turkey quill was attached, plucked a string. The strings were made of wire, wound around a tuning pin. The wire strings were of various lengths, in various gauges, from various metals, to yield the spectrum of different tones. When the key was released and the jack fell back into place, a small scrap of felt attached to the top of the jack acted as a damper. The plucked strings gave harpsichords a very bright, crisp sound. By the late eighteenth century most harpsichords had a range five octaves. English-made harpsichords tended to have a powerful tone with a sonorous bass and a reedy treble. There was no control over the loudness or quality of the tone as the string was simply plucked and released.

The "touch" of a harpsichord has been described as "crunchy," because the musician must overcome the resistance of the plectrum plucking the string. The dip of the keys is very shallow, and thus they must be played lightly, as excessive force on the keys will cause the instrument to play out of tune and will result in an unpleasant thumping sound. Each note must be articulated individually, with precision, or the sound will become muddy. Harpsichord sound samples are available at Dr. Bradley Lehman’s page at the University of Michigan web site.

The first pianoforte was made in Italy in 1709, by the Italian harpsichord maker, Bartolomeo Cristofori. He called his new instrument the "Fortepiano." Forte means loud and piano means soft. This new type of instrument next became known in Germany and then spread across the rest of Europe over the course of the eighteenth century. As with any new invention, the fortepiano was very expensive and for many years was a luxury available only the monied elite.

The fortepiano, later known as the pianoforte, was initially made by harpsichord makers because they had the necessary skills and materials. The case of the instrument was similar to that of a harpsichord, but shorter and wider. The bentside was more curvilinear, with a deeper concave curve and a more rounded outer curve at the back. The legs were made so as to place the keyboard at the correct height to be played while seated. The pianoforte was never designed to be played in a standing position. It only had one keyboard, though it was longer than that of a harpsichord, the keys were wider and usually made of ivory, not wood. Pianofortes during the Regency had a range of five octaves. Instruments with seven octaves were first made in the 1820s.

A variation of the pianoforte was made with a rectangular case, called the "square pianoforte." The plainer, less expensive models came with a simple trestle stand, while the more expensive version had exotic wood veneers and banding and the more elegant "French frame." The keyboard on all models ran about two-thirds the length of one long side, with ivory keys. These square pianofortes were more affordable and compact, which meant they could fit within the budget and the smaller spaces of a middle-class family home.

Regardless of whether the pianoforte was a grand or the smaller square, the sound was made by a small felt-covered hammer striking groups of taut wire strings. This method gave the musician control over the tone, so that it could be played loud or soft. Another feature which gave the musician greater control was the damper or sustain pedal, which lifts the dampers from all the strings, sustaining the played notes. In some designs, a knee lever served this purpose. Later a second pedal or knee lever was added, which shifts the action of the hammers so that they strike only one string, instead of the full group. This produces a softer sound, thus the pedal is called the soft pedal. Because the hammers struck groups or "choirs" of strings for each note, a pleasing sound could be made even by heavy-handed musicians of indifferent talent.

A harpsichord had only one string per note. But a pianoforte could have two or three strings per note. And, more importantly, the dawning Industrial Revolution made possible the production of stronger, thinner, more uniform steel wire for the strings. Precision casting facilitated production of iron frames into which the steel wire strings could be drawn very taut. This increased the powerful, richer, sustained sound which the harpsichord could not equal. For this reason, the harpsichord began to fall out of favor, displaced by the pianoforte. The pianoforte was used instead of a harpsichord at the birthday celebration of King George III, in 1795. This event marked the beginning of the end for the harpsichord.

The largest, most well-known maker of both harpsichords and pianofortes in England was the London firm of John Broadwood & Son. The company had been making harpsichords for more than fifty years, when they made their last one in 1793. From that year, they concentrated on pianofortes, which they had begun making in 1777.

Though there were very few harpsichords made in England after 1800, they did not disappear from the homes where they had once been given pride of place. They were, in fact, often joined by the new pianoforte. Those who had grown up playing a harpsichord still enjoyed playing them, while the younger generation was taught to play the new pianoforte. Many music rooms had both a harpsichord and a pianoforte. During the Regency they might both have been played in concert for guests or simply for family entertainment.

Pianofortes had displaced harpsichords in most public venues by the Regency. The pianoforte was the instrument of choice for public concerts and recitals, as well as at the theater, for its more powerful sound. Even so, the sound of the instruments of those times would have been softer and clearer than today’s modern piano. The instrument would have been called the "pianoforte" during the years of the Regency. Its name was not shortened to "piano" until the 1850s.

There is a lovely Georgian house set in the Kent countryside called Finchcocks. Today it houses a large collection of historical keyboard instruments, which visitors are welcome to play. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts has a virtual tours of its musical instruments, including one of keyboard instruments, which include harpsichords and square pianos.


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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9 Responses to Pianoforte vs. Harpsichord

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  4. dwwilkin says:

    Reblogged this on The Things That Catch My Eye and commented:
    Just put a fortepiano in my current work, Lord Bennington’s Marriage Bed. Had thought to use a harpsichord, and then began research because I wanted to know when a pianoforte would be apropos. Found that the fortepiano would be the correct instrument.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad you found the article informative.

      Personally, I am very fond of the sound of a harpsichord, but the fortepiano was the new, modern instrument during the Regency. So, most people tended to prefer it. And it certainly gave the musician a much wider range of sound, which I suspect both they and their listeners enjoyed.

      Thanks for stopping by.



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  7. Gunnar says:

    A VERY informative article, thank you! I’ve read in a number of places that harpsichords were played in the standing position until the end of the 18th century, but period paintings seem to suggest otherwise. Vermeer, for example, depicted people playing virginals while standing, and spinets while seated. Perhaps both positions were employed? I have a pentagonal spinet that I play while standing, and must admit that the sound (for me) is better, though I sometimes sit as well, especially when regulating the instrument.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you for your kind words. I am glad you liked the article.

      You bring up a most interesting topic, on which I have not spent much time, that is, the position of the performer when the instrument is played. A couple of things come to mind. First, all of the paintings which I have seen of people playing a keyboard instrument while standing are from the seventeenth century (the period in which Vermeer was painting). Therefore, it may have been the fashion of the time. Second, paintings are not snapshots and were usually highly staged by the artist, so they cannot be considered “a slice of life” as a photograph would be. Either the artist, their subject, or both, wished to convey a specific image in a work of art they expected to last for generations. Therefore, there may have been many reasons why the subject of a painting was depicted standing or seated at a keyboard instrument in any given painting.

      This is a fascinating topic for study, and now that you have piqued my curiosity, I will have to follow it up.



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