The clavicytherium

Clavicytherium, suthern Germany (Ulm?) c1480;
London, Royal College of Music Museum of Instruments

This is one of the oldest harpsichords extant. In spite of severe damage and loss of several parts over the centuries some important features like the jack rail directly under the decoration are still visible.

music sample:
(excerpt) Ludwig Senfl: Homo quidam fecit cenam
played by René Clemencic
Instrument: Philippe Humeau, reconstruction based on the Clavicytherium in London RCM

music sample:
(excerpt) Guillaume de Machaut: "De toutes flours", from Codex Faenza, Italy 15th c.
played by Marcel Pérès
Instrument: Emile Jobin, copy of an italian Clavicytherium (with gut strings)


The clavicytherium was rather popular but nonetheless rare. The players liked its sound character since the strings were placed close to the ear, an advantage contributing later to the popularity of upright grand pianos as well. But the mechanism of all instruments upright - whether harpsichord or piano - was very complicated since jacks nor hammers did not return to initial positions by themselves (ie by gravity) when the key was released.

This problem needed to be solved by specific springs to return the jacks or by extra lead weights at the keys (which themselves needed direct links to the jacks). Whatever solution applied, the playing mechanism of a clavicytherium was more complicated and the action heavier than in a horizontal instrument.  So the clavicytherium was often admired (no treatise of the time ignores it) but in musical practice it played no important part.

The factor as a curio made it survive the centuries rather often though, including the instrument depicted. It is assumed that it was made in the second half of the 15th century in one of the southern German Imperial cities (probably Ulm) or maybe in Italy.


© Greifenberger Institut für Musikinstrumentenkunde |