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Harpsichord with soundboard by Hans Ruckers, Amsterdam, 1612—From the National Trust Property, Fenton House, Hampstead, London; by gracious permission of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother
Keyboard instrument in which the strings are set in vibration by a plucking mechanism. The latter consists of plectra made of quill (or sometimes leather) mounted on vertical wooden jacks that are activated by the keys. A cloth damper touches the string when the player releases the key. It often has two parallel keyboards (or manuals) and generally has two or more sets of strings, each of which produces different tone qualities; these permit the simultaneous sounding of pitches an octave higher or lower than the note struck. The notes' loudness is not affected by the power with which the keys are struck, and there is no way to sustain a note after the key is released. Primitive harpsichords existed by the mid-15th century. In the 17th–18th centuries the harpsichord became a very important solo, accompanimental, and ensemble instrument. From c. 1750 the pianoforte, with its greater dynamic capacity, began to displace it, and by 1820 the harpsichord had largely vanished. It was revived in the late 19th century by scholars, performers, and instrument builders.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on harpsichord, visit Britannica.com.