Denzil Wraight - Italian Keyboard Instruments

COMPASSES OF ITALIAN STRING KEYBOARD INSTRUMENTS

It is probably now fairly widely appreciated that many early Italian harpsichords had their original compasses altered in order to adapt them to the demands of later styles of music making. I have documented these alterations in 1997/1, 'The stringing of Italian keyboard instruments...' (see Publications for further details).

Thus, the 50-note C/E-f compass commonly used in the 16th century was modified from about 1640 onwards, often to another 50-note compass, GG/BB-c. The smaller compass C/E-c was known in the 16th century, but the C/E-f range predominated by about 3:2.

In the 17th century the situation was reversed and C/E-c compasses outnumbered C/E-f by almost 3:1. Since instruments with these compasses were made at the same pitch we may infer that the loss of interest in the higher range was due (at least in part) to a change in performance practice where the higher octave (i.e. f-f) was no longer required for the repetition of melodies. This appears to have coincided with the removal of 4' registers in instruments surviving from the 16th-century and the doubling of registers to give 2 x 8'.

After 1650 compasses starting on GG found increasing popularity and after 1700 compasses reaching to f can again be seen, but now as FF,GG,AA-f or GG,AA-f. However, the smaller C/E-c compass still made up about a quarter of the compasses in the 18th century and sufficed for accompanying singers.

It can be seen from the following table that chromatic bass octaves were never widely used and that compasses mostly ended on a c or an f. This appears to reflect the Italian tendency to add to the keyboard range with intervals of a fourth or a fifth. Thus, original bass octaves are either GG or FF (below C) and never AA.

List of Italian harpsichord compasses 1515-1792
 Compass 1515-99 1600-50 1651-99 1700-92 Add. Total
 F,G,A-g,a 1 - - - -
 F,G-f 1 [1?] - - - -
 C/E-g,a 2 - - - -
 C/E-c 15 [3?] 26 [2?] 26 [1?] 20 28 [2?] 115 
 C/E-d - - 1 3 1
 C/E-d,e - - - 1 -
 C/E-f 22 [7?] 9 [1?] 7 [1?] 3 [1?] 6 [1?] 47 
 C/E-c4 1 - - - -
 C,D-c 1 [1?] - 1 - -
 C-c - 2 [1?] - 3 1
 C-d - - 1 1 [1?] -
 C-e - - 1 - -
 C-f - - 1 3 -
 C-g - - - 1 -
 GG/BB-c - 1 4 [?] 1 1
 GG/BB-f - - - 3 -
 GG,AA-c - - 12 7 [1?] 1 20 
 GG,AA-d - - 1 [1?] 1 1
 GG,AA-d,e - - - 1 1
 GG,AA-e - - - 1 -
 GG,AA-f - - 1 3 -
 GG-c - 1 [1?] 2 [1?] - 2
 GG-d - - 1 [1?] 2 -
 GG-e - - - 1 -
 GG-f - - - 3 2
 FF,GG,AA-c - - 3 [1?] 4 -
 FF,GG-g - - - 2 -
 FF-f - - - 4 -
 FF-g - - 1 [1?] - -
 location? 4 7 10 3 1 25 
 uncertain 5 2 4 1 9 21 
 unknown - 2 4 8 17 31 
 fake - - - 1 -
 Total 52 50 81 81 71 335 

Conventions:
Add.: additional instruments which are not signed, dated, or attributed.
[_?]: the number of instruments where there is doubt about the compass.
location?: the present location is unknown so information may be unreliable.
unknown: the original compass could not be established.
fake: the keyboard is not historical work.
N.B. This table supersedes that in my thesis, part 1, p. 160

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page updated 2 December 2005
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