Vindicating Hubbard's Universal Harpsichord Range

When Hubbard in the 1960’s designed his two-manual French kit, he took the classical range c.1710-1760 of FF-f’‘’ and enlarged it to g’‘’ to be able to play all the works by Scarlatti and Soler. Hubbard’s idea was to have something such as the “universal harpsichord” that allows playing all the scores from the harpsichord era in a single instrument.

As we all know, the concept of the “universal harpsichord” was soon abandoned, as players realised that instruments from some national schools (notably Italian ones) have an action feeling and sound projection enormously different from a French double. Nowadays a recital devoted to the Italian or Spanish repertoire is hardly ever played on a French-model instrument.

And indeed, having been criticised for his “tampering with Taskin”, after c.1975 Hubbard “improved” his kit: he got rid of the Kluge keyboards replacing them by historical ones, and he reduced the range to FF-f’‘’.

I disagree.

I find that Hubbard’s initial idea was correct, and let me explain why:

  1. Most harpsichords, kits and custom, are not meant for recitals or continuo but for home use, whether amateur or professional. Most players cannot afford the cost and place needed to have two or more instruments. Yet, most players wish to be able to play the whole harpsichord repertoire “as is” on their instrument.

  2. Back to the harpsichord range, much has been written and published in recent times, and I am not going to “peddle” here my own publications in this respect. Let me just note some important details.

  • BASS. It reached FF in the first years of the 18th century, and this remained the standard extension well into the fortepiano era. Harpsichords were built down to EE and even CC (most likely for continuo 16’ use), but these were exceptional and late (after 1750): AFAIK no music was every published (or even is extant in manuscripts) using those low notes. From F. Couperin’s Premier Livre to Beethoven piano works a century later, the lowest note was always FF.

  • TREBLE. For a long time d’‘’ was the top note, but then fretted clavichords often had an e’‘’, and by the end of the harpsichord era f’‘’ was scored by Rameau and others. Spanish harpsichords and English spinets, however, reached g’‘’, and important music was composed for this range, notably by Scarlatti and Soler.

  1. At this point, I find that “Hubbard’s extended range” is fully justified: lower than FF (in spite of a few extant late Taskins) makes no sense because there is no historical use for it. Higher than g’‘’ neither. But FF-g’‘’ is most useful, and the modification of a Taskin “à la Hubbard” to add those two notes cannot possibly affect the acoustics or action of the double French in any possible way.
    (It can be objected that the 4’ becomes useless up there, but then who cares: unless you “carve” your 4’ hitchpin rail very carefully, 4’ strings above d’‘’ will produce a scarcely audible sound, and are not needed for the Spanish repertoire anyway).
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Interesting post by Claudio which I mostly agree with. Just a couple remarks.

The g’’’, which by the way even Zuckermann and The Paris Workshop kits feature, demands moving the bridge a bit away from its ideal position. This repositioning affects, I think, the last 5-6 notes. This is not a big deal in my opinion, as long as those notes don’t become too long for historical iron. Don’t know about Hubbard but Z and TPW still are able to maintain historical iron.
This is only possible with three registers harpsichords, it wouldn’t be possible with 4 registers because all the available space would be eaten by the registers, so the last strings should be still longer, with no possibility for historical iron.

As said, I think Z and TPW (I haven’t ever seen any Hubbard so I can’t speak of them) are a good compromise.

However I don’t feel I am lacking the g’’’ when I play harpsichords which haven’t it. Usually is pretty simple to re-shape the melody to avoid that note. A possible exception is Scarlatti K 427: those repeated chords can’t be reshaped but only played an octave lower, losing brilliancy and percussion. Any other occurrences I am not aware of?

I have never played a FF, probably because I play very little French music, if at all. So I wonder: what about a GG-g’’’ range, like the Antunes 1785 (was at the Finchcock’s collection, now in the USA)? Sure they all have only two registers and can’t be used as “universal” harpsichords which was Claudio’s topic.

Good observations, Domenico.

Problem is, the French repertoire includes some of the most beautiful and idiomatic music ever composed for the harpsichord, and some masterpieces (e.g. Rameau’s Concert in B flat major) use the FF very appropriately in ways very difficult to transpose).

The bridge hardly needs repositioning to add those two notes: one has to sacrifice the optimal quality of their sound, which is not an issue since they are seldom used. And if the last few notes require steel instead of iron, I see no issue anyway: the sound of either material is indistinguishable in the uppermost treble.