Welcome to Fiona's Peculiar Adventures
Some Medieval/ Renaissance Keyboard Instruments
Published on 5th October, 2020
What’s in this triangular metal box?
Let’s hear how it sounds first.
Initially, it sounds a bit like a harp. But then the articulation allows us to hear the key actions and thus we make a guess of it being a stringed keyboard instrument. Maybe a Harpsichord, as it is the most common type of early stringed keyboard? Hmm, but here, the individual notes do not sustain or ring as long as we would normally expect. Also, the plucking action sounds less subtle.
Actually, there is something magical about its timid timbre, with every note articulating delicately and elegantly. Needless to say, this is why I’ve been attracted to the instrument and started playing it.
The Clavicytherium is, in very simple words, a Harpsichord seated upright. With its keyboard situated at the lowest part of the instrument, the sound box is erected upon the keyboard. All of the strings run from the bottom to the top of the sound box, and when a key is pressed down, the jack is triggered to push towards the player, plucking the associated string with the plectrum. Today, scholars have quite a clear idea about how the Clavicytherium would look like, thanks to this one instrument that has survived and is now preserved in the Museum of the Royal College of Music (London).
If this beauty didn’t survive, modern performers would have to reconstruct
the Clavicytherium based on some of these (later) illustrations, which were crude, and in some cases, not even proportional, let alone giving us any concrete details on the sound producing mechanism.
Musica getutscht (1511) Syntagma Musicum II (1619)
Sebastian Virdung Michael Praetorius
The Clavicytherium preserved in the RCM collection stands, according to Elizabeth Wells, the curator of the museum, 1,417mm tall. It has a range of three octaves plus a third (E2 to g5, if middle C is C4), and the keys are spaced quite widely, compared to most of the surviving harpsichords. Unfortunately, it is in such a frail state (from woodworm damage) that it’s no longer playable. From the marks found at the back the instrument and the evidence from the woodcarving, painting and palaeography, the instrument has been dated to the end of the 15th century, around the area of Ulm, in the present Germany.
Like most of the medieval keyboards, there are still many different ideas concerning how the Clavicytherium should be built, what type of strings to use, etc. We are fortunate that there is a surviving specimen, but we should also understand that this specimen only represents one building tradition in late 15th century Southern Germany, a specific period and a specific region.
As for what music to play on the Clavicytherium, my rationale is – make the decision a personal one! The instrument speaks and reacts very differently to each person’s hand and touch, so it is a very individual choice. Make it a creative one! There is a decent amount of surviving keyboard intabulations and compositions, especially immediately into the early 16th century. For me, personally, the instrument favours moving lines rather than sustained notes, so I am inclined to intabulating chansons around the late 15th to early 16th century to play on the Clavicytherium.
So, the Clavicytherium! With one more instrument added to the diverse spectrum of middle ages/ Renaissance keyboards, now we can sit back and immerse in its mellow soundscape.