This article by Edmund Handy in the series ‘Clavichords in Britain’ appeared in BCS Newsletter 24, issued in October 2002. Sadly, the instrument described here is no longer on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum, following the permanent closure of the museum’s Musical Instrument Gallery in February 2010. Where necessary, the original text has been updated; these changes are enclosed in square brackets.


Edmund Handy, Bexley

In one of the glass cases in the musical instrument gallery at London's Victoria and Albert museum sits an imposing German unfretted clavichord. First impressions are of a large instrument, the exterior casework and legs being painted pale green. The lid cord is missing and the lid, the inside of which is decorated with a blue monochrome painting of a stag hunt, is currently held open by a rather incongruous harpsichord prop-stick. The natural key fronts are embossed and gilded, and the ivory sharp tops are engraved. The instrument certainly fits into the museum’s acquisition brief, which places a strong emphasis on design and decoration, but the Barthold Fritz clavichord is also a fine and important musical instrument.

This inscription can be found on the soundboard:

Barthold Fritz fecit Braunschweig aôum;. 1751 Mens. febr.

Barthold Fritz (1697-1766) was a maker of harpsichords, clavichords, organs and pianos and spent his working life in Brunswick (Braunschweig), near Hanover. The fine musical qualities of his instruments were matched by a high level of craftsmanship, and his reputation rivalled that of Hubert, Hass or Silbermann. Fritz also made mechanical instruments, musical clocks, singing birds and a horizontal windmill. This aspect of his career echoes that of his contemporary, the inventor and harpsichord maker Joseph Merlin (1735-1803), who applied his mechanical wizardry not only to musical instruments but also to clocks, watches, and a host of mechanical devices. While demonstrating his roller skates and simultaneously playing the violin, Merlin collided with a mirror, breaking it, the violin, and himself.

Fritz may have lacked Merlin's showmanship, but he seems to have been a man of great energy. He is said to have built more than 500 clavichords, and his guide to the tuning of keyboard instruments was published in 1756 and was dedicated to C. P. E. Bach. Unfortunately, C. P. E. Bach disliked Fritz’s instruments; in a letter dated 1773 he wrote that he preferred the clavichords of Friederici to those of Fritz and Hass, largely because Friederici’s instruments ‘do not have octave strings in the bass, something which I cannot tolerate’. There are now only three or four surviving instruments by Fritz, which accounts for his relative obscurity compared with his more famed contemporaries.

The 1751 clavichord was bought by the Victoria and Albert Museum from the estate of Carl Engel in 1881 for £15. A plan-view photograph of the instrument in the V&A museum catalogue published in 1959 shows it with a seriously cracked soundboard, but in 1963 it was restored to playing condition by John Barnes. The baseboards, which average 30mm in thickness, had been weakened by previous repairs, and in order to strengthen the structure and enable it to withstand the necessary string tensions John decided, controversially, to fit a large metal brace inside the instrument running from the back left corner through the belly rail to the front right corner. No substantial work has been carried out on it since.

In every way this is a big instrument. The overall length and width are given in Boalch (Makers of the Harpsichord and Clavichord 1440-1840) as 1790mm and 581mm. respectively. For a mid-eighteenth-century instrument the compass is very large (over five octaves, FF–a3) and the soundboard area is also generous, with an open ‘S’-shaped bridge. The keys are not excessively cranked, and there is a sizeable space between the hitch-pin rail and the bass key. This allows room for a toolbox, but more importantly it avoids the problems of instruments such as the clavichord attributed to J. H. Silbermann, now in the Nuremberg Museum, in which the tangent for the lowest key is only 33mm or so from the hitch pin. This does not allow enough room for listing the bass strings adequately, and makes the touch of the lowest strings rather inflexible. The scale of the Fritz instrument is long, the length for c2 being given in Boalch as 294mm, which is comparable with Hass clavichords of a similar size. It has octave strings in the bass, from FF to c.

A revised edition of the catalogue of keyboard instruments in the V&A was prepared by Howard Schott and published in 1985; it contained a photograph of the Fritz clavichord in its restored state. [This catalogue is out of print, but it can be downloaded from] On page 153 of The Clavichord by Bernard Brauchli (Cambridge University Press, 1998) is a photograph of another finely decorated Fritz clavichord, of c. 1750.

Whilst few people would argue with the need to conserve and protect such an instrument, its current situation makes the important question of what it sounds like all the more intriguing. It was played in public after the 1963 restoration and, according to the V&A’s musical instrument curator, it was last played by Joan Benson in the early 1980s. My guess is that it would sound similar to the instruments of Hass, with a strong but refined tone and a firm touch, but until it next emerges from its glass case no one will know. It will certainly need some repairs before it speaks again; the soundboard is lifting off the belly rail and it has once again split, though not as badly as it was before John Barnes's restoration. Clavichord makers considering making a copy of a large German instrument could do worse than to take a closer look at this one [a digital plan of the instrument is published by the V&A: see end-note].

At present, this clavichord is in store: those with a special interest may be granted access to it on application to the museum, giving at least two week’s notice: e-mail A technical drawing in digital format can be purchased: contact Chrysanthe Constantouris (Academic Image Rights) at; photographs are also available from this source. Paper copies of V&A instrument drawings are no longer for sale, but they can be viewed by appointment at the museum’s Prints and Drawings Study Room (e-mail A catalogue of the V&A musical instrument collection can be downloaded from

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updated November 2014