A Harpsichord Revival – Practising the Piano

In this week’s guest post, harpsichordist and conductor Jory Vinikour explores the harpsichord revival which started in the last 19th century and discusses two of his instruments from this period. Jory will also be presenting an online tour and demonstration of his extensive collection of keyboard instruments, including these two, on Sat 31st July as part of our online events programme (please click here for further details).  


Towards the end of the 19th century, interest in the harpsichord began to spark. It might be said that it hadn’t entirely died out, as famous performers such as Ignaz Moscheles performed occasionally on the harpsichord. The Dolmetsch family began to build copies of historic keyboard instruments in England, inspired by a collection of early instruments in the British Museum.  

Perhaps the most notable change was brought about by Wanda Landowska. Already a famed pianist, Landowska was passionately interested to hear, and to play, Bach, and other great composers of the Baroque, on the instruments of their epoch.

Wanda Landowska at the harpsichord
Wanda Landowska, 1937

Although she had some familiarity with harpsichords in museums and private collections, she inspired the French piano company, Pleyel, to create a harpsichord to her specifications. Built to withstand contemporary demands, these instruments diverged greatly from historic harpsichords by the heaviness of their frame, a uniquely complicated action, and the addition of a 16’ stop – a register of strings sounding one octave below concert pitch. Although Johann Sebastian Bach certainly had one harpsichord with a 16’ stop, this feature is most atypical during the Baroque period, with merely a small number of German instruments featuring it.

Landowskas favoured harpsichord
Landowska’s favoured instrument, the Pleyel Grand Modèle de Concert, 1927

After Pleyel, many harpsichord builders began creating instruments for a new generation of performers. Companies such as Neupert, Ammer, Sperhakke in Germany, or Gobel, in England. Mechanically, these instruments frequently had more in common with the Baroque models than did Pleyel.

The first of my revival instruments is by Pleyel, either 1939 or 1952 (there is confusion about the date). Although this instrument is not fully restored, it has a distinctive tone quality – far heavier than a historic harpsichord, very organ-like in its sustaining qualities. Its pedals are also capable of controlling rapid changes of stops.

Pleyel revival harpsichord
Harpsichord by Pleyel, ca. 1950

The second of my revival instruments is by Anthony Sidey, 1968. Although Sidey has gone on to become a god-like figure in the world of harpsichord building, with his instruments sought after in all of Europe, he initially learned his craft with Pleyel. This instrument is interesting in that we see very clearly the backward glance towards Pleyel – the heavy frame, 16’ stop, etc. However, Sidey’s mechanic already resembles much more closely historic models. 

sidey harpsichord
Revival harpsichord by Anthony Sidey (1968)

Pleyel continued to make harpsichords into the early 1960’s. As performers began to demand exclusively historic models, new builders arose throughout the world. Some of the older builders, including Gobel and Neupert, mostly set aside their revival harpsichords, building to an entirely historical aesthetic. Yet these older instruments occupy an important place in the harpsichord’s history.

Harpsichords, Pianos and a Clavichord!

Jory will be returning to our online events programme on Saturday 31st July @ 13:00 BST (GMT + 1) to give an informal tour of his extensive collection of keyboard instruments in Chalon-sur-Saône, in the heart of Burgundy. In this double-bill online event, you will meet a collection of keyboard instruments, including:

  • Rubio, Franco Flemish harpsichord copy (ca. 1975)
  • Italian harpsichord, after Baffo (Parmalee, 1985)
  • Clavichord, after Hass. Tom and Barbara Wolf (1993)
  • Pleyel harpsichord (ca. 1950)
  • Revival harpsichord by Anthony Sidey (1968)
  • Bösendorfer piano (1846)
  • Erard piano (1843)

Jory will perform and discuss works from various style periods selected to showcase the characteristics of each instrument. Do not miss this rare opportunity to see a live demonstration of such a unique collection of instruments delivered by a highly engaging and accomplished presenter! Click here for more information or to book your place.