Composing for the Clavichord

A Short Guide by Francis Knights

The clavichord has a near-unbroken history of use stretching back some six centuries, the earliest reference to the instrument dating from 1404 and the latest historical instruments being made in the 1840s. Composers including Bach, Haydn and Mozart have used it both as a compositional workbench and as a valued performing instrument. Since the late 19th-century revival of the instrument begun by Arnold Dolmetsch, a number of modern writers (Herbert Howells, Ernst Pepping, Lou Harrison and others) have composed new works for the instrument, trying to create a contemporary language which still respects the qualities of this most intimate of musical instruments. It has even been used in folk, jazz and pop music.

It used to be thought that the clavichord was too quiet to be played in public, and that the instrument should serve just for practice and private study and enjoyment, but modern experience with fine historic copies in small halls with good acoustics has showed that it can be a successful concert instrument. It has also been used in ensemble with flute, violin or voice, and there is a small but important repertoire for two clavichords.

Those who are not familiar with the instrument are advised to spend a little time in background reading (see especially the New Grove article on the instrument, and Bernard Brauchli’s excellent book The Clavichord), and listening to recordings. The following notes are designed to help composers become aware of some of the instrument’s special qualities and limitations, and of the differences between (say) a Renaissance instrument of 1540, a mid-Baroque fretted instrument and an early Romantic Scandinavian instrument.

The best way of learning more is to experience the clavichord in person. If you live in the UK, click here to see a list of forthcoming events, or contact the British Clavichord Society to see whether there is an instrument in your area which you can try. Many other countries now have clavichord societies; click here for a contact list.

Compass, fretting and tuning

Early historical clavichords have a system of fretting by which several keys – between two and four – share a pair (‘course’) of strings. Instruments with one course of strings per key (‘unfretted’) were becoming common by the mid-18th century, and nearly all new music is written for this type of instrument (compass between C–d 3 and FF–f 3, four-and-a-half or five octaves) because it makes all semitone dissonances and chords possible. Most 18th-century-model instruments are tuned in temperaments that are slightly unequal, with the central keys being more in tune, but this is rarely a problem even for new music conceived for equal temperament.

Dynamic range

In absolute terms, relative to the modern concert grand piano, the loudest clavichords have a dynamic range of perhaps pppp–mf. Because the listener’s and player’s ears adjust quickly to the relative dynamic level, composers have historically notated this range from pp–ff. It is often most rewarding to explore the dynamics at the quietest levels, although players can be reluctant to do this in concerts, for fear of not being heard.

Attack and sustain

The quality of attack possible on a clavichord is very wide, from an almost imperceptible start to a note to a biting apparent sforzando. The upper limit is determined by the tightness of the stringing and firmness of the action, as the strings can be pushed sharp by too heavy a touch; the damper rail present on some instruments can help to prevent this. Larger, later clavichords tend to have a longer sustain; the duration can range from perhaps 2–6 seconds. The speed of decay can vary considerably, and most instruments give the illusion of longer sustain than is actually present. Bebung (finger vibrato) can be used to prolong a single melodic note somewhat, but is an expressive effect that is easily overused.

Keyboard style and texture

Thurston Dart observed that, while much ‘harpsichord’ music transfers well to the clavichord, the reverse is not necessarily true. In the same way, a surprising amount of organ and even piano music from earlier periods can be made to work on the clavichord (pieces by Nielsen, Chopin and Albéniz have been used in recitals). What rarely works are those characteristic textures from other keyboard instruments: thick Brahmsian chords, long sustained organ notes and fast Scarlattian passagework. Nevertheless, a look at the centuries of repertoire shows a broad variety of successful approaches, and thick or thin textures, melodic writing or counterpoint, long lines or fragmented voicing can all be made effective. Octaves in the bass, and sometimes even the treble, can work on the clavichord in a way that they do not on the harpsichord. One of the most successful ways of writing is that common in the later eighteenth century, with two-part textures dominated by a melodic right hand.

The quality of silence

Like other quiet instruments (for example, the lute) the clavichord's tone seems to emerge from silence in a way that differs from the harpsichord or even piano. It is therefore worth considering carefully the purpose and meaning of rests, and of gaps between phrases – some clavichord music has a Zen-like interaction between what is heard and what is unheard. Gesture, mood and meaning, too, need to be considered within this context.

Further Reading

C. P. E. Bach, Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (Berlin 1753–62, English translation 1949)
D. G. Türk, Clavierschule, oder Anweisung zum Clavierspielen für Lehrer und Lernende (Leipzig and Halle 1789, English translation 1982)
H. Neupert, Das Klavichord (Kassel 1955; English translation, 1965, The Clavichord)
E. M. Ripin, ‘A Reassessment of the Fretted Clavichord’, Galpin Society Journal, xxiii (1970), pp.40–48
R. Kirkpatrick, ‘On Playing the Clavichord’, Early Music, ix (1981), pp.293–305
R. Troeger, Technique and Interpretation on the Harpsichord and Clavichord (Bloomington, Indiana 1987)
De Clavicordio
(Proceedings of the International Clavichord Conferences at Magnano, 1993–)
F. Bedford and R. Conant, Harpsichord and Clavichord Music of the Twentieth Century (Berkeley 1993). B. Brauchli, The Clavichord (Cambridge 1998)

Recommended Recordings

The following list of currently available clavichord CDs includes principally Baroque and early classical music, but it is still a useful listening guide to styles in both clavichord composing and performing.

* Discs marked with an asterisk are available by mail order from the British Clavichord Society Shop. The BCS Shop can also supply clavichord music and publications, including Hanns Neupert’s short introduction, The Clavichord.

Derek Adlam
* J. S. Bach: Masterworks for Clavichord (Guild GMCD 7232)

René Clemencic
Early Gothic and Renaissance Masterworks, Vol. 1 (Arte Nova 74321 92781 2, 2 CDs), Vol. 2 (Arte Nova 74321 99053 2, 3 CDs)

Thurston Dart
* Bach: French Suites (J. Martin Stafford JMSCD 4)
* Froberger: Suites & Early English Pieces (J. Martin Stafford JMSCD 5)

Pierre Goy and Nicole Hostettler
Johann Gottfried Müthel: Ariosi, Sonatas and Duets (Cantando 2016, 3 CDs)

Keith Jarrett
Jarrett: The Book of Ways (ECM 831 396-2, 2 CDs)

Ralph Kirkpatrick
J. S. Bach: Das Wohltemperierte Klavier Books 1 and 2 (Deutsche Grammophon 463 601-2 and 463 623-2, 4 CDs)

Oscar Peterson, with Joe Pass (guitar)
Gershwin: Music from Porgy and Bess (Ace Original Jazz Classics OJCCD 829)

Paul Simmonds
* German Clavichord Music (Ars Musici AM 1145-2)
* Wolf: Keyboard Sonatas (Ars Musici AM 1206-2)

Ludger Singer
Mediterra Nova: Music by Ludger Singer (Luxaries LUX 34000/3)

Miklós Spányi
C. P. E. Bach: Complete Solo Keyboard Music, Vols. 1 ff. (BIS)

Colin Tilney
J. S. Bach: Das Wohltemperierte Klavier (Hyperion CDA 66351/4, 4 CDs)

Richard Troeger
J. S. Bach: Partitas; Toccatas; Inventions & Sinfonias (Lyrichord LEMS-8038, LEMS-8041 and LEMS-8047, 4 CDs)

Jaroslav Tůma
J. S. Bach: Das Wohltemperierte Klavier Book 1 (Supraphon SU 3600-2 132, 2 CDs)

If you have any queries, suggestions or comments regarding these notes, please e-mail Francis or visit his website

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updated October 2016