Denzil Wraight - Italian Keyboard Instruments


I build a number of different types of Italian harpsichords and virginals offering you the opportunity of commissioning instruments based on my extensive archives of the lesser-known historical models. Many significant instruments are still virtually unknown in the musical community because they have not been recently catalogued or drawings made of them. The examples I have given in this website illustrate a range of styles, as found in the traditions of Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples, and Sicily. In this way I wish to illustrate the differences to be found in the various centres of harpsichord making on the Italian peninsular and not speak as if a generic "Italian harpsichord" existed.

From my experience as an instrument maker I consider that the tonal character of a harpsichord is primarily dependent upon:

* the construction of the soundboard (thickness, ribbing, grain orientation)
* the soundboard and bridge material
* the string material
* the physical size of the instrument

The construction of an Italian soundboard varies slightly in the different traditions. Spruce (or fir), cypress, and maple have different mechanical characteristics which lead in turn to different timbres when these materials are used for the soundboard. A significant factor is whether the strings are of brass or iron; iron strings in any harpsichord tradition produce a more brilliant tone. Lastly, small instruments sound crisper than large ones. An "Italian harpsichord" sound as such did not exist; tonal differences can be found in instruments from the different Italian cities based on these factors and not deriving specifically from the individual maker's contribution.

The "false-inner-outer" style of construction (known earlier as "non levatoro della cassa" or "attacato alla cassa") has recently become relatively popular since it is a cheaper alternative to an inner instrument with a full outer case, and is practical to transport. In my experience there is no substantial difference between the timbre of instruments made in the two styles. However, a separate outer case may have some panel resonances which are excited by certain notes of the harpsichord. There is also historical evidence that some Italian makers saw there to be no essential difference between the two different types since they strung a false-inner-outer instrument in the same way as an inner-outer instrument. (See 2000/4, 'Principles and Practice in Stringing...' in Publications).

The skill of a harpsichord maker consists in being able to adjust the performance of the soundboard so that despite widely varying mechanical properties (even within one plank of wood) the required tonal result is achieved. I have developed methods and acquired experience which permit my achieving consistent results in shaping the timbre.

Compasses used in Italy were often C/E-f in the 16th century, reverting to the core musical range of C/E-c later. When larger compasses were built they were often GG,AA-c. The musician nowadays who performs a range of European music often requires a compass which is none of these. I take account of these needs by offering other compasses. For more information about historical Italian compasses in harpsichords and virginals see Compasses.

Pitches were not identical throughout Italy, as documentary records show and instrument building also reveals. The now common a' = 415Hz was used in Venice and Florence, but a lower pitch was used in Rome and Naples (about a' = 390Hz-400Hz). Higher pitches at a' = 440Hz and a' = 465Hz were also used in Venice. For more information about historical Italian pitches in harpsichords and virginals see Pitch.

page updated 19 October 2005