The small but good continuo harpsichord

Although I hardly ever play continuo lately, a matter has intrigued me for quite some time.
After the vogue of the small awful-sounding mini-harpsichords (German revival and initial Zuckermann) was over decades ago, I see around people moving large instruments (often light Italian ones but still very long) for a simple continuo purpose.

And indeed, back in the Baroque era, harpsichords (except for octave virginals and the like) were always very long, and this matter has been discussed in the literature.

However, for modern-day practical continuo-only use, moving around an instrument going down to GG or even FF and long 2mt or more (typically 230cm in a French double) is not necessary.

At least for Taskin (the only maker by whom we have extant both several instruments and their original stringing lists) it can be shown that string length and case size are roughly in proportion to the reconstructed original pitch: as pitch rose, instruments got smaller.

It can also be shown that the typical mid-18th French instrument had a size such that the case’s longest standing wave is very close to 1/4 of the wavelength of GG. This explains why in so many instruments the “boomy bass” is excellent down to AA, still very good at GG, but relatively poor at FF: the case simply cannot resonate at the required frequency.

If however we are playing only continuo, our score will never go beyond C, and it is enough to have a bass excellent down to D and very good at C.

I have made the necessary calculations and found that, if we restrict its bass keyboard range down to only C, we can make the total instrument length shorter by an impressive approx. 60cm without any impairment whatsoever in bass sound quality. This makes the instrument not much lighter in weight, but the reduced size (now totalling approx. 170cm in length) allows it to fit in many relatively small cars.

Anybody familiar with any such modern “small but good” continuo instrument?

Dear Claudio,

This problem has been on the active minds of some among us from at least the early 1990s. The result of conversations with Marc Ducornet back then, and his work, resulted in the AMD line of instruments from that workshop. All were intended be very high quality instruments, but extremely portable, and cosmetically stripped down for better affordability, without sacrificing any structural, tonal, or performance aspects. If you look at my website you can find a link to them, including a delightfully transportable “Le Petit Clavecin” with a single 8’ which, having less load on the soundboard than multiple ranks, is a phenomenal continuo instrument. That said, a number of my clients, including churches and universities, have purchased them for continuo purposes. I personally take around my AMD French single with 2 8’s and buff for most continuo purposes as it holds up well under even modern orchestras or small baroque ensembles. These instruments are better than small but good, they are small but outstanding. I have covers made that have pockets for the three screw in legs, music desk and lid stick. One thing to easily carry and pop into the vehicle. Fold down back seat and clear space into the trunk/rear section is really all you need. AA

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I have a “little Italian” with short and broken octave that ZHI used to sell (the changed model is now fully chromatic*) and have found it perfect for continuo. I suspect that, as suggested above, it may be even better were I to remove the second rank of strings, but I found it quite adequate to accompany Meffiah, and the short octave to be no encumberance.

This instrment is about 2 metres long from keyboard to tail and, with its outer case, I used to be able to transport it in my Porsche 924. But I wonder how Claudio actually comes up with 170 cm as the maximum length required, and should be interested to have more details of the calculations involved.

  • The short octave is one of the reasons I made this instrument, so as to be able to play music that demands it: I do not regret having made that decision.

David

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Dear David, my calculations are based on wavelength and resonance. If it appears that the longest resonance of the case should be about 1/4 of the wavelength, and the lowest well-sounding note is GG, then if a smaller-range harpsichord only requires the lowest well-sounding note to be D, then the part of the case covered by the soundboard can be shortened to 2/3. The calculations are in my initial post.

Dear Claudio:

How do you arrive at a 60cm reduction? 2/3 of what? Which resonances are you taking into account?

Best,

David

My initial estimate was very rough, and not much precision is needed when computing resonances in irregular bodies, as you well know with your expertise in musical acoustics. I gave a look at the size of surviving Taskins, and my own Hubbard-Taskin appears to be a good average, total length 231 cm. To get the slowest resonance wave we should measure many things, but they are almost exactly proportional to the maximum internal case length at the spine, which is 175cm, with good resonance down to GG. Down to D only it is enough to have 2/3 of it, i.e. 117cm. Accordingly, the case length and therefore the total instrument length are reduced by about 175-117=58cm, or about 60cm shorter. For a two-manual instrument, instead of a 230cm long one it is enough to have a 170cm-long one. It gets down to about 155cm for a one-manual instrument.
Edit: Over Hubbard’s plan view of a Hemsh in black, I superimposed in red the modification in the bass that I have calculated. Yes, I know, although resonance-wise the case would be perfect down to D and good for C, the lowest octave would have the 8’ strings shorter than ideal: well, the same can be said of the lowest octave of a 5-octave instrument! If I were younger and wealthier and … anyway I like it!

I thought I’d point out that, among other very questionable assumptions, such an instrument would not be suited for playing Couperin or Marais’s continuo parts (to mention only two names), that need GG, AA, BB. Of course, one can claim that these notes can be omitted or played an octave higher. But the same is true for their pieces. I remember playing a piece by Marais that has a descending scale from A to AA. And, when accompanying a viola da gamba, one doesn’t always have the luxury of a second viol.

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Dear Dennis. Thanks for your interest in my proposal, and indeed you have a point.

Please note though that, in the decades 1970s and 1980s when almost every single weekend I played continuo in public with the Telemann chamber group in Argentina, only once I encountered a note below C.

We all know the reason for the rarity of these notes: continuo was universally assumed to be played not just by a keyboard but also by one or more string or wind instruments, and throughout Europe cellos, violones and bass viols hardly ever went below C (the same can be said of organ pedalboards). The two exceptions were, of course, in middle and late Baroque the bassoon down to BBb and the French viol down to AA. Yet even composers who wrote a huge amount of continuo parts and scored frequently for these instruments (for example J.S: Bach) hardly ever used notes below C, so much so that the famous AA in the last movement of his trio sonata for two flutes and continuo BWV 1039 is held as a rare exception.

I am puzzled by the low GG you mention, surely meant for a lute.
Coincidentally, among the well-known complaints about the awful sound quality of revival harpsichords, most of which went down just to C for continuo purposes, and in the middle of the 20th centuries (and also, alas, for decades!) were the most common harpsichords around, I never read complaints about the reduced bass range of these instruments.

This said, my design can accomodate the additional bass notes you mention, with a very slight modification: you just add a further natural in the bass and split the first two sharps, getting a “broken octave from GG/BB”, chromatic from C upwards.

I just pulled out a volume from my bookshelf and looked at Couperin’s Pièces de violes. A quick glance shows there are at least three pieces in the first suite that have the GG (and even more have AA and BB). And these notes are necessary precisely because the viol can’t play them. And, no, none of this was meant for the lute, since the standard 11-choir French baroque lute’s lowest note was precisely C.

GG: Sarabande grave, bar 11; Gavotte, bar 20; Gigue, bar 12; etc.
BB: Needed in all 6 pieces of the suite; 16 times in the Passacaille.

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Lovely piece of evidence of these important (though relatively infrequent in the repertoire) pieces of evidence of a continuo with bass notes meant for solo harpsichord.

Anyway, please note that my proposal is meant, quite obviously, as a substitute for the present-day ubiquitous Italian-type continuo instrument down to only C, yet unnecessarily long and difficult to carry around.

The French 11-course baroque lute was quintessentially a 17th century solo instrument and would have been an unlikely choice for continuo in François Couperin’s time. The theorbo would have been far a more obvious choice and in its 14-course form (there were theorboes with up to 19-courses!) the lowest note would have been GG. The archlute might also have been used and that would also cover the GG bass (and maybe even an FF).
Best,
Matthew

Thanks Matthew. I prefer this explanation for the GG in a continuo score, rather than thinking of the bass line being played by the harpsichord solo: I know of no historical evidence for this.

Sorry, Claudio, but this makes no sense. Have you even looked at the score? And have you ever played with a theorbo? It’s fairly obvious that the bass line in these pieces is not playable on a theorbo. And why on earth would Couperin have written for theorbo rather than for his own instrument? And why do you prefer this absurd explanation, when Couperin also uses these low notes in his harpsichord pieces?

Dear Dennis. My explanation may be wrong, but absurd is not. Again, in hundreds of Baroque continuo scores I played for 20+ years (mostly German and Italian, but also Boismortier and Leclair), only once I found a note below C: this proves that my continuo harpsichord proposal (nothing new range-wise as, again, for decades instruments down to C were the great majority) fits 99% of the scores, with the ones you quote being the rare exceptions.

As for your Couperin’s harpsichord argument, it is easy to disprove. Why did Bach wrote thousands and thousands of bass continuo notes with just two of them below C, when his harpsichord pieces freely go down to GG? Because this made the continuo playable on most cellos, viols, lutes and so on. This is not an opinion of mine. Observations like this one have been made by scholars for decades, now please do not tell me that scholars “make no sense” … Avagoodnite …:slight_smile:
(apologise for the edits, English is my 4th language…)

Le 19/11/2021 00:11, Claudio Di Veroli via The Jackrail Ă©crit :

My explanation may be wrong, but absurd is not. Again, in hundreds of Baroque continuo scores I played for 20+ years (mostly German and Italian, but also Boismortier and Leclair), only once I found a note below C: this proves that my continuo proposal fits 99% of the scores, with the ones you quote being the rare exceptions.

As for your Couperin’s harpsichord argument, it is easy to disprove. Why did Bach wrote thousands and thousands of bass continuo notes with just two of them below C, when his harpsichord pieces freely go down to GG? Because this made the continuo playable on most cellos, viols, lutes and so on. This is not an opinion of mine. Observations like this one have been made by scholars for decades, now please do not tell me that scholars “make no sense” …

In case I wasn’t clear, what is absurd and nonsensical is the claim that, because they go down to GG, Couperin’s continuo parts weren’t intended for the harpsichord, but for the lute or the theorbo, neither of which would be able to play them. (As for Bach’s harpsichord pieces that “freely” go down to GG, these are in fact very rare.)

Replying via email no longer seems to work…

Le 19/11/2021 00:11, Claudio Di Veroli via The Jackrail Ă©crit :

Again, in hundreds of Baroque continuo scores I played for 20+ years (mostly German and Italian, but also Boismortier and Leclair), only once I found a note below C: this proves that my continuo proposal fits 99% of the scores, with the ones you quote being the rare exceptions.

Since you mention Leclair, I just looked at the last piece I played (Sonate VIII from his /Second livre de sonates pour le violon et pour la flûte traversière avec la basse continue/), and in the second movement I see both BB and AA. So in a few minutes I found twice as many notes below C than you did in your 20 years of continuo playing.

Le 19/11/2021 00:11, Claudio Di Veroli via The Jackrail Ă©crit :

My explanation may be wrong, but absurd is not. Again, in hundreds of Baroque continuo scores I played for 20+ years (mostly German and Italian, but also Boismortier and Leclair), only once I found a note below C: this proves that my continuo proposal fits 99% of the scores, with the ones you quote being the rare exceptions.

As for your Couperin’s harpsichord argument, it is easy to disprove. Why did Bach wrote thousands and thousands of bass continuo notes with just two of them below C, when his harpsichord pieces freely go down to GG? Because this made the continuo playable on most cellos, viols, lutes and so on. This is not an opinion of mine. Observations like this one have been made by scholars for decades, now please do not tell me that scholars “make no sense” …

In case I wasn’t clear, what is absurd and nonsensical is the claim
that, because they go down to GG, Couperin’s continuo parts weren’t
intended for the harpsichord, but for the lute or the theorbo, neither
of which would be able to play them. (As for Bach’s harpsichord pieces
that “freely” go down to GG, these are in fact very rare.)

Le 19/11/2021 00:11, Claudio Di Veroli via The Jackrail Ă©crit :

Again, in hundreds of Baroque continuo scores I played for 20+ years (mostly German and Italian, but also Boismortier and Leclair), only once I found a note below C: this proves that my continuo proposal fits 99% of the scores, with the ones you quote being the rare exceptions.

Since you mention Leclair, I just looked at the last piece I played
(Sonate VIII from his /Second livre de sonates pour le violon et pour la
flûte traversière avec la basse continue/), and in the second movement I
see both BB and AA. So in a few minutes I found twice as many notes
below C than you did in your 20 years of continuo playing.