High Strung: Five Centuries of Stringed Keyboard Instruments

An exciting new exhibition, High Strung: Five Centuries of Stringed Keyboard Instruments, has just opened at the National Music Museum (NMM, Vermillion, South Dakota, USA).

The exhibition charts the evolution of acoustic keyboard musical instruments from early harpsichords to the modern-day piano. It examines their form, function and development, and how keyboard innovation has spread worldwide over the centuries.

photo of the National Music Museum
The National Music Museum, Vermillion, South Dakota

The earliest known stringed keyboard instrument was the English Chequer, or eschequier which translates as “chessboard”. This was supposedly an early type of clavichord (keyed chord) originating in England, and possibly so named because of its checkered decoration. Reference to this instrument occurs in a poem written in 1360 by Guillaume de Machaut— an important French composer and poet and Canon of Rheims [1].

The earliest known reference to a harpsichord dates back to a letter sent in 1397 by Giovanni Lambertacci from Padua, Italy stating that a certain Hermann Poll, whom he had recently met, had invented an instrument called a “clavicembalum” (keyed dulcimer). Incidentally, Bartolomeo Cristofori, the recognised inventor of the piano some 300 years later, was born in Padua.

Further evidence of an early stringed keyboard is depicted in an altarpiece carving, dated 1425, from the Roman Catholic cathedral of Minden in Germany, which shows an angel playing a small harpsichord.

So stringed keyboards have now been with us for over 600 years! They have come in all shapes and sizes — clavichords, virginals, spinets, harpsichords, and pianos.

The Exhibition

Part of the High Strung exhibition. In the foreground is the Streicher grand piano, and to the right the Broadwood upright.

Twenty keyboard instruments from NMM’s collections are at the exhibition’s heart. These span some 500 years of keyboard development. Some of these instruments have never previously been on display. They include:

  • A harpsichord from the Neopolitan school, (Naples, c1530). This is possibly the oldest playable harpsichord known to exist.
  • An octave virginal (rectangular harpsichord), (Naples, c1520-1540). Maker unknown, but typical of the Neopolitan school.
  • A highly decorated harpsichord by Andreas Ruckers (Antwerp, 1643). Andreas Ruckers is generally considered to be the greatest of all harpsichord makers.
  • A harpsichord by Nicholas Dufour (Paris, 1683).
  • A spinet by Charles Haward (London, 1689).
  • A lying harp piano by Gottfried Maucher (Konstanz, Germany, 1797).
  • A harpsichord by Joseph Kirckman (Kirkman) (London, 1798).
  • A French “clavecin à marteaux” (harpsichord with hammers) by Louis Bas (Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, France, 1781). This instrument is among the oldest surviving French grand pianos.
  • A tangentenflügel (tangent piano) by Franz Jakob Späth & Christoph Friedrich Schmahl (Regensburg, Germany, c1784).
  • A clavichord by Johann Paul Kraemer (Goettingen, Germany, 1804).
  • A downward-striking grand piano by Nannette Streicher und Son (Vienna 1829).
  • An upright piano by John Broadwood & Sons (London, c1842)
  • An 8ft concert grand piano by Erard (Paris 1849).
  • A 7½ft grand piano by Chickering and Sons (Boston 1864).
  • A square piano by William Knabe & Company (Baltimore, c1865).
  • A 9ft Model CC grand piano by Mason & Hamlin (Boston, 1901).

These instruments clearly show how stringed keyboard instruments, and in particular pianos, have evolved over the past five centuries.

a collection of six studio images of piano exhibits
Some of the piano exhibits (top left, clockwise): Späth (tangent), Maucher (lying harp), Louis Bas (clavecin å marteaux), Knabe (square), Streicher (grand), Broadwood (upright)

High Strung: Five Centuries of Stringed Keyboard Instruments runs throughout 2024 in the National Music Museum’s Jason and Betsy Groves Special Exhibition Gallery.

An excellent book/catalogue accompanying the exhibition is available from the National Music Museum Store for $17.95 (US price including shipping).

High Strung: Five Centuries of Stringed Keyboard Instruments is supported by the Clayton and Odessa Lang Ofstad Foundation, Clay County Commissioners, and the City of Vermillion.

High Strung: Five Centuries of Stringed Keyboard Instruments
National Music Museum (NMM)
University of South Dakota
414 East Clark Street
Vermillion SD 57069

Opening times: Tuesday through Saturday, 10am to 4pm.
Admission: Adult $10, Seniors $8, Child $5. Discounts available.
Website: www.nmmusd.org.

[1] The Eschequier Virginal: An English Invention, by W.H.Grattan Flood. Music and Letters, Volume VI, Issue 2, April 1925.


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