Susanne un jour : the instruments

The instruments :

The two harpsichords used in this recording are based on an original by Alessandro Trasuntino, 1531, which belongs to the Royal College of Music Museum, London. Trasuntino worked in the republic of Venice; his established dates are 1485-1545. There are three surviving instruments which are certainly by him, all harpsichords:

  1. One of 1530, in private ownership in Italy. This is in fact the oldest surviving Venetian harpsichord.
  2. The Royal College instrument.
  3. One of 1538, in the Musée des Instruments de Musique in Brussels.

I made the two copies to be as nearly as possible identical, taking consecutive pieces of wood from the same stock for each part, and using the same pattern of barring and thicknessing for the soundboards. The difference between the two harpsichords is that the first one, played in tracks 1-15, has the disposition which the instrument had originally: 8′ and 4′ registers, and a compass of C/E short octave to f³. This compass necessitates iron stringing for most of the compass. The second harpsichord, played in tracks 16-20, reproduces the state to which the majority of these earliest instruments were rebuilt: the 4′ register was removed, a second 8′ was added and the case strengthened to take the tension; a new keyboard was made with a compass of GG/BB short octave to c³. These rebuilt instruments, since the scaling was shorter, were strung with brass throughout.

This modernising of early instruments to suit a later musical taste has undoubtedly saved many which would otherwise have been regarded as obsolete, and would simply have been destroyed. It is interesting to note the long time scale over which the changes were made. The researcher Denzil Wraight has found evidence of one instrument mentioned in the middle of the 17th century as having formerly had a 4′ register. The 1530 Trasuntino, on the other hand, was not rebuilt until 1704. Clearly, the early harpsichords were being adapted right through the second half of the 18th century.

Another significant point is that the rebuilding resulted in a change of compass, not necessarily in a change of pitch. By having c³ rather than f³ as the top note, all the notes in the new compass were relatively shorter by a fourth, but this is nearly compensated for by the change from iron strings to the softer and heavier brass, regardless of which diameters of strings were chosen. To make the comparison between the two instruments as realistic as possible, I strung and tuned them to pitches which would result in very similar stress levels in the iron strings and the brass strings respectively; the early instrument is at A400Hz, the later one at A410.

Malcolm Rose

Two harpsichords by Malcolm Rose, 2003, after : Alessandro Trasuntino 1531 (Royal College of Music Museum, London).

The two harpsichords were kindly lent for this recording by Dr Joseph Kung.