Towards establishing the original state of the three-manual harpsichord by Stefano Bolcioni, Florence, 1627, in the Russell Collection of Early Keyboard Instruments, Edinburgh


an article published in The Galpin Society Journal, 53 (2000) 168-200

by Grant O'Brien

The present boxslide registers and the original compass

          The present boxslide registers fit perfectly into the width of the instrument with a roughly equal amount of space between the ends of the registers and the first and last jackslots.  The equal spacing at the ends of the registers is a good indication that the registers are original since a maker normally designed the string band of his instruments to be positioned centrally between the side case walls.  These registers, despite the drastic falsification of the instrument which occurred around the time it was sold by Franciolini, and despite at least one and perhaps several more intermediate-state replacements of the original keyboards, do indeed seem to be original on the basis of the following further evidence. 

          These registers were sliced through longitudinally about half-way down from the top of the register so that, from the original two registers, four new registers were made.  Presumably one of these half-registers was discarded and the other three were used as the new registers for the inauthentic 3-keyboard state.  However, the top sections of both registers survive, and both have marks beside some of the jackslots made with a sharp pointed tool to locate the string directly above the mark.  These marks appear from their irregular spacing along the registers to indicate each of the notes c and f throughout the compass[1].  One register has the marks placed to the right of the jackslots, the other on the left of the jackslots to indicate the quill directions plucking to the left and to the right in the usual way.  This indicates clearly that the instrument had two choirs of strings, and the absence of any marks either for a 4' bridge or for 4' hitchpins on the soundboard means that it must originally have been disposed with two sets of 8' strings[2].  Even in the absence of the evidence provided by the scribed markings on the baseboard to the same effect, this strongly suggests that the instrument originally had only one manual as is usual with Italian harpsichords.

          Figure 3 indicates one of the registers in its present orientation at the top of the diagram, and the same register rotated through 180º in what is likely its original orientation.  If the disposition of the two registers of the Edinburgh Bolcioni was the same as that of the 1631 Bolcioni in the University of Yale then this would be the register located nearest to the player which clearly, from the position of the indentation markings on the right-hand side of the jackslots, would have plucked the short set of 8' strings.


Figure 3 - One of the boxslide registers in its present position (top diagram)
and in its likely original orientation (bottom diagram)

Three-manual harpsichord by Stefano Bolcioni, Florence, 1627

Russell Collection of Early Keyboard Instruments, Cat. No. HT1-SB1627.4


           In the present orientation of the register (top part of the diagram), the compass implied by the construction marks beside the jackslots would read from F to d3, four octaves less a minor third but apparently including a number of split accidentals.  This is a very unusual compass historically and is both very old-fashioned at the bass end of the compass and very advanced in the treble for an instrument of 1627.  It would be necessary to postulate a number of split accidentals including all but one of the accidentals between f2 and c3 in a part of the compass where split accidentals are normally not found in other extant instruments.  It would also imply the use of a bass octave beginning at F, but with split accidentals higher up in the compass.  This is most unlikely since split accidentals imply the use of a broken short octave in the bass with both a compass down to C and with split D/F# and split E/G#.  The extra notes of the broken short octave provide roots to the additional chords and playable tonalities in meantone tuning provided by the extra accidentals used harmonically higher up in the compass.  Also, if it is assumed that this orientation is correct, it would be necessary to postulate that Bolcioni made a mistake and marked both b2 and c3 on one of the registers, an unlikely possibility for an otherwise careful and accurate professional maker.

          All of these problems disappear, however, if it is assumed that the registers have been incorrectly placed in the instrument in an orientation rotated through 180º.  The two adjacently-marked register slots are then clearly the notes C[/E] and F of a normal short octave, and the marked slots above this correspond to the remaining c and f notes.  Between F and c there are jackslot spaces for D/F# and E/G# of the usual broken octave.  Above this the number of jackslots available implies that there are two extra notes in the next two octaves which, in analogy with the other instruments made by Bolcioni, must have been d#/eb and g#/ab in the second octave and d#1/eb1 and g#1/ab1 in the third octave where these notes would be needed harmonically[3].  Because of the presence of these split accidentals it would be both useful and necessary to have split keylevers for D/F# and E/G# to provide roots to the chords in the tonalities and modulations possible with the additional enharmonically-related notes provided by the split accidentals in the middle of the compass.  The top octave from c2 to c3 has no split accidentals as would be expected since the accidentals here are normally used melodically and not harmonically.  The compass implied by the marks on the register in this orientation is therefore clearly C/E to c3 with two keys below the low C which could be tuned to any note required by the music in a manner similar to that adopted for the lower diapason notes of the theorboed lute.  I have assumed here that these keylevers would play strings tuned to G1 and A1 but they might have played any of the notes F1, G1, A1, Bb1, B and Eb, all of which could be used as the roots to the major and minor chords (except for bb minor and eb minor) playable in the tonalities possible in meantone temperament with the notes available elsewhere in the compass[4].

          It is impossible now to tell with certainty whether the two keylevers below the low C full-width natural were placed side-by-side, or whether the two notes were played by the front and rear section of a split natural.  Given the amount of space available in the keywell it seems likely that the two keylevers were placed side-by-side[5].  This would then give the front of the keyboard a width of 29 naturals.  If these 29 naturals had a width designed by Bolcioni to be 25 soldi = 684mm, then the resulting span of the keyboard would be 495mm, intermediate between the 3-octave spans of the other Bolcioni instruments which vary from 488mm to 512mm[6].  A 25 soldi keyboard width would leave a space for the keywell scrolls and keyblocks of about 36mm on either side of the keyboard[7].  Figure 4 shows the compass and probable original arrangement of keylevers for this harpsichord.




Figure 4 - Original compass and probable original key arrangement

Three-manual harpsichord by Stefano Bolcioni, Florence, 1627

Russell Collection of Early Keyboard Instruments, Cat. No. HT1-SB1627.4


This unusual compass with the two keylevers below the C/E keylever, and with a broken octave above this and then the split dT/eb and gT/ab notes in the next two octaves, would have become out-of-date by the end of the seventeenth century.  This is clearly the reason that the original keyboard with this extraordinary compass was replaced by the straightforward C/E to c3 keyboard with the added pedal pull-down cords.  And the replacement of the original keyboard, it will be remembered, is the reason that the case length was shortened, and that the original keywell scrolls were replaced with the present sloping cheekpieces.


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[1] The single-manual harpsichord by Stefano Bolcioni of 1631 in the Yale Collection of Musical Instruments, New Haven, Conn, Cat. No. 4889.72 has similar indentation markings on the top surface of the registers for the notes c and f.  In addition the top of the bridge on this instrument also has indentation markings for each of the c and f notes.

[2] There is a heavy bar, clearly intended as a normal cutoff bar for the 8' bridge, placed underneath the present 4' bridge/4' hitchpin rail.  All of the features of this bar suggest that it is original work.  Since no intelligent maker of the historical period would put such a heavy bar underneath a soundboard intended to have a light 4' bridge above it, this is further evidence that there was never a 4' register on the instrument.

[3] The1629 Bolcioni virginal in Munich (see footnote 19), the 1629 virginal signed “Viti de Trasuntinis 1601” in the Musée de la Musique, Paris, number 980.2.x, and attributed by Denzil Wraight to Bolcioni (see footnote 18), and the 1641 Bolcioni virginal in Leipzig all have a broken short octave in the bass with split D/F# and E/G#, as well as some combination of split accidentals higher up in the compass.  Although the Bolcioni virginal in Rome (see:  Maria Louisa Cervelli, ‘Per un catalogo degli strumenti a tastiera del Museo degli Antichi Strumenti Musicali’, Accademie e Biblioteche d’Italia, 44, Nº 4-5 (1976) 318-9) and the Bolcioni virginal which was sold by Maison Druout in Paris some years ago (information kindly supplied by John Koster) did not have either a broken short octave or split accidentals, the appearance of the split accidental notes in the Russell Collection harpsichord is therefore to be seen as a practice which Bolcioni often followed.

[4] F1 and G1 used as roots to major chords in key signatures with only one accidental are perhaps the most likely possibilities from a strictly musical point of view.  However, as will be seen below, the original scalings were clearly designed by Bolcioni to be accurately Pythagorean right down to the point where the bridge mitre occurred.  It is clear from the graph shown in igure 7  that the scalings of the assumed note G1 is foreshortened by a full octave relative to the Pythagorean scalings based on c2 = 11 soldi = 300.8mm.  For a maker who was clearly concerned that the scalings of his instrument should be accurately Pythagorean, it seems unlikely that he would have chosen to tune the bottom string to a note which was foreshortened by a whole octave plus a major second (a major ninth).  In simple terms this means that a string of this length tuned to a pitch as low as F1 would be very slack and would have a sound with a very poor musical quality.

[5] See the arrangement of the natural keylevers in the single-manual harpsichord belonging to A.C.N. Mackenzie, Bristol (now attributed to Giambattista Boni by Denzil Wraight) described by Friedemann Hellwig, ‘The single-strung Italian harpsichord’, Keyboard Instruments, Edwin M. Ripin editor, (Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 1971; reprint, Dover Publications, New York, 1977) p. 29.  This is the only instrument described by Denzil Wraight and Christopher Stembridge in ‘Italian split-keyed instruments with fewer than nineteen divisions to the octave’, Performance Practice Review, 7, No. 2 (1974) 150-81 which has touchplates below C.  A.C.N. Mackenzie, the owner of the instrument, suggests a somewhat different and more rational disposition of the notes to which the keylevers were tuned, but these still involve an arrangement of natural keylevers below a C/E short octave.  The 1627 Edinburgh Bolcioni harpsichord was therefore originally like this instrument in having notes below the normal C/E short octave.

[6] The 3-octave span of the virginal in Munich with a namebatten with Bolcioni’s signature and the date 1629 has a 3-octave span, reported by Hubert Henkel, Besaitete Tasteninstrumenten, (Erwin Bochinsky, Frankfurt-am-Main, 1994) 294, of 512mm.  This is very large in relation to the 3-octave span of other historical instruments.  If Bolcioni had designed the keyboard of the Edinburgh harpsichord to have a width of 26 soldi = 711mm, then the 29 naturals would have had a 3-octave span of 515mm, a value even larger than the Munich virginal and considerably larger than the normal 3-octave span of most Italian instruments which is usually about 500mm.  Indeed the 3-octave span is a value determined by the average size of the human hand rather than any desire on the part of the maker to use a convenient number of measuring units.

[7] If the keywell cheekpiece scrolls were of the same thickness as on the Yale 1631 Bolcioni harpsichord of about 7mm each, then the keyblocks would have had a thickness of about 29mm each.  This value has been assumed when drawing the diagram shown in Figure 10.