Pleyel harpsichord


The two-manual Pleyel harpsichord bearing the serial number E1 left the workshop on June 15th 1891. A few months later the instrument was donated to what was then the Royal Conservatory of Music in Brussels - now the mim. Given that the harpsichord was worth twice as much as a grand piano, this was a most generous gift. It was at any rate important enough for the July 15th 1892 edition of L'Écho musical to refer to it as being of: "matchless elegance, a marvel of refinement worthy of the famous firm whose name it bears [...] combining the delicacy and variety of timbre of instrument building of old with the precision and reliability of the modern".

This Pleyel harpsichord can be seen as the prototype of the 'modern harpsichord'. It saw the light of day as part of the rediscovery and revival of early music, which began in 1830. The historical concerts in Paris, organized by the Belgian composer, musicologist and music critic François-Joseph Fétis (1784-1871) were a fine example of this renewed interest, which gathered momentum in the second half of the nineteenth century. In the pursuit of originality, it was soon considered important that early music should be played on the appropriate instruments, hence the reconditioning and copying of many early instruments. It is in that spirit that the firm Pleyel constructed its first harpsichord, which it presented at the 1889World Fair.

Pleyel harpsichord inv.1598 is not an exact copy of instruments from the renaissance or baroque periods. According to Pleyel, its construction was based on "old theoretical documents" and also on the "study of a large number of seventeenth and eighteenth-century instruments preserved intact in collections, particularly those of master builders like Ruckers, Couchet of Antwerp, Blanchet and Pascal Taskin". Though its construction was inspired by historic instruments, the sober rosewood veneer of the case is more reminiscent of a piano. Some described the instrument as a "plectrum piano" rather than as a harpsichord.

As far as the registers are concerned, we see the classic 3 sets of strings, with a disposition of 2 x 8' and 1 x 4'. There is also a nasal register inspired by the lute stop of English harpsichords from the second half of the eighteenth century where the strings of the upper 8 foot are plucked closer to the bridge, and also a second, muted lute register. The player activates these registers and also the register coupling by means of pedals on a lyre. This was very different from the usual instruments of the time, but it had the advantage of enabling the player to use all the register combinations with great ease. Both keyboards have a range of 5 octaves, from fah to fah, and the keys are as wide as those of pianos from the same period. The jacks are weighted. Screws underneath them regulate the length of the plectra, and the contact point of the plectrum can be adjusted with a second screw. The plectra are of hard leather rather than quill. All the dampers, apart from the one on the upper part of the 4 foot, are attached to levers, as was the case with table pianos of the same period.

This instrument was made to better withstand climatic changes and frequent transportation. So it was a true concert instrument which, in accordance with the then norms, boasted "robust mechanics, a powerful sound, a varied timbre and above all rapid changes of register." (Eugène de Bricqueville in1913). Pleyel built 180 instruments of this type between 1889 and 1970. The harpsichord was greeted as the perfect instrument to revive Bach's polyphony. Musical celebrities like the French musician and musicologist Louis Diémer (1843-1919) and in particular the Polish pianist and harpsichordist Wanda Landowska (1879-1959) were devotees. Landowska was an exceptional artist and pioneered the rediscovery of early music. She played this model of harpsichord when she visited Auguste Rodin's studio in 1908 and also while travelling in Russia, where she gave a performance in front of (among others) Leonid Tolstoy. It is even quite possible that Landowska tried out this very instrument when she visited the mim in 1910.

Pleyel harpsichord inv.1598
harpsichord inv.1598 top view
harpsichord inv.1598 bottom view
Wanda Landowska and her Pleyel harpsichord
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Antoine Francisque, Branle from: Le Trésor d'Orphee