Old or original quills

From the Labrèche topic:

From my background in mathematics Kaarman’s analyses appear sound, although I would question some of his assumptions, as quills are not necessarily perfectly uniform material, etc. But his assertion of original quills based on four harpsichords nearby him that obviously have old quills has no given proof or substantiation. I remain sceptical. Quills in a harpsichord that is played upon will last twenty years looked after well. But I still don’t accept quills will survive the rigours that harpsichords go through after three hundred years. Like strings, they are such an ephemeral thing.

As to dating raised by @Pickett radiocarbon dating is out, as is thermoluminecence. But it occurred to me that synchrotron studies may be useful. Here in Melbourne Australia we have one of the worlds brightest and most advanced synchrotrons in the world. [The public tour is fantastic.] I found quite a few papers of studies of bird feathers, interestingly, but they are all about atomic structure and so on. So far I saw nothing about dating. I suspect that is not within the capability of synchroton X-ray/light analysis.

Even so. In that case, they are not very signifcant.

Well, what is precisely an “original” quill? A remnant of the first quilling by the maker, or a quill put by a harpsichordist in the same era, or maybe 30-40 years later? or what?
I’d say it would be significant if it was a quill made in the timeframe when the harpsichord were constantly played just after it had made.

This brings into my mind a related matter. How much does a raven quill last? In modern times we oil it, we voice our harpsichord soft (according to Kroesbergen and Koopman, way softer than they were voiced in baroque times), and they last many years, even 10, maybe 20.

Howeverrrrrr, I recall having read (please help me, cannot recall where), that in the baroque era harpsichords of the nobility were requilled every FEW years. This appears to support the Kroesbergen-Koopman hypothesis.

I would be glad to know more about the historical quills, both about voicing and frequency of replacement.


where do these two gentlemen say this? I would doubt that it is true. If you voice an instrument much louder than is normal today, it produces an unpleasant sound and the results in terms of projection are the opposite of what one might expect (from the modern experience of turning up the volume of an amplifier).

On the other hand, as you know, Fr. Couperin writes that for young people the instruments “should be weakly quilled” (soient emplumés très faiblement).


If there are still some old quills lying about, I would presume that recent restorers took an interest in them and looked at how they were cut, what bird species were used etc. and included descriptions in their restoration logs (others may simply have thrown them out, of course). Does anyone know if there is a convenient article or book chapter where that information can be found?

On the subject of re-quilling practices, there is an interesting Irish harpsichord maker’s account book from the late 18th c. which has interesting references to tunings, “cloathing” (= damping) and other maintenance that some people may not have come across.
The text can be accessed via jstor:

The Account-Book of a Dublin Harpsichord Maker, Ferdinand Weber, 1764 to 1783
Author(s): W. H. Grattan Flood
Source: The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Sixth Series, Vol. 4, No. 4
(Dec. 31, 1914), pp. 338-347
Published by: Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland
Stable URL: The Account-Book of a Dublin Harpsichord Maker, Ferdinand Weber, 1764 to 1783 on JSTOR

Probably Claudio was recalling something written in O’Brien’s Ruckers book. The author says those harpsichords were probably quilled stronger than their French counterparts, due to a stronger stringing (which by the way not everybody agree on). Moreover, a harpsichord with only one 8’ can be voiced stronger, closer to its maximum before squeaking. Add the key balancing: Frenchs are balanced close to the centre, making for a very light key weight, while Ruckers (and many Italians too) have their balance pin closer to the player, making for a heavier touch that should be matched by a stronger voicing.

All this I am quoting by memory, so if I reported O’Brien’s thinking wrongly, please forgive.

probably Claudio meant: Harpsichord building in Holland
by Willem Kroesbergen and Ton Koopman


Early Music, Volume 4, Issue 4, October 1976, Pages 439–442, https://doi.org/10.1093/earlyj/4.4.439

I find it hard to understand how key balance /touchinfluences optimum voicing, which is surely solely a function of the feather and the string. Do you mean plucking point?


I don’t mean touch influences voicing but that if you have a heavier touch you don’t want a too light voicing because the additional strength needed to lower the key needs a somewhat higher resistence from the string. I mean, if you put more strength in the finger in order to lower the key and the plectrum plucks the string too easily, your finger keeps its momentum and the key slams against the touchrail or the jacks under the jackrail producing a lot of noise. If, on the other hand, the voicing is a tad stronger (thicker strings, stronger voicing etc), the momentum of the finger is somewhat restrained. I hope I have been able to express what I mean, it’s not as easy for me.
Frenchs didn’t voice to the maximum possible for the instrument, as you reminded in your previous post, so it is possible for flemishes to voice stronger than French still keeping a beautiful tone.

But you are answering a different point than I was. I was questioning the assertion that

In modern times … we voice our harpsichord soft (according to Kroesbergen and Koopman, way softer than they were voiced in baroque times)


Ah ok, but Habo has found the Kroesbergen and Koopman text Claudio was hinting to. I have pointed to O’Brien opinion which seems to me well supported, so the conclusion could be that indeed it seems that we modern people voice softer than in baroque time, but we need to add “softer than in baroque time in France”.

Koopman has a rather heavy hand on keyboards, so this could confirm his preferences on voicing.

I think it’s impossible to say with no evidence from SPL meters in 1750.

Of course, but maybe we can infer. We (often? Everytime? Sometimes?) stop voicing down as soon as the harpsichord stops squeaking and start singing. This way we aim to the loudest sound being still warm and round. On the other hand, Couperin says to voice lightly. Of course he means more lightly than strictly requested to have a no-squeaking harpsichord, otherwise there would be no point in expressely requesting a light voicing if he only meant “light just to not make the harpsichord squeak”.
So there must be a latitude between Couperin’s (“voice lightly”) and our (“stop voicing down when the harpsichord stops squeaking”) voicing.
How much a latitude, who knows.

Am I wrong in thinking French harpsichords have a less-angled quill than Flemish? This can also be related to a lighter touch and sound.

I’ll have to pull out my text but isn’t FC only referring to quilling lightly for young learners?

As I wrote earlier in this thread: " Fr. Couperin writes that for young people [only] the instruments “should be weakly quilled” (soient emplumés très faiblement)."


My own impression about quite a few modern harpsichords that in concert could hardly be heard within a small baroque band (and then I inspected personally) is that they were too soft-voiced. I have heard both Delrin-overvoiced instruments (it can be done with raven quill but it will hardly last a year), and very undervoiced ones. I prefer a middle-loud thing, but far away from the excesses of Kroesbergen-Koopman that, by the way, were deplored in more than one comment on Early Music. Here there are two references: Early Music vol. IV p. 439 and vol. XXII p. 482.

Thanks very much Claudio. I am able to locate these articles using JSTOR. I’m pretty sure I can’t distribute them here, even though I can download for myself. A pity.

Yes, he says that for little kids the quilling should be ‘very weak’ so they are not accustomed to banging on things to make them work. Many overlook this context and say that F.C. advocated very feeble voicing in general, when he says nothing of the sort. We start kids out on the clarinet with #1 reeds, but by the time they are experienced and old enough they have to start graduating to stiffer reeds.


CORRECT Owen! I know very little evidence of weak quilling for professional use in Baroque France. One very tiny evidence I know, drawings where a violin is accompanied by a harpsichord with the lid open. However, the harpsichord could well be playing on a single stop!