The case, stringing and fretting design of the 1543 Venetian clavichord by Dominicus Pisaurensis

an article published in  De Clavicordio, Proceedings of the V International Clavichord Symposium/Atti del V congresso internazionale sul clavicordo.  Magnano, 5-5 September 2001, edited by Bernard Brauchli, Alberto Galazzo and Ivan Moody, (Musica antica a Magnano, Magnano, 2002), 91-107, by Grant O'Brien.




            The Musikinstrumentenmuseum of the University of Leipzig has in its collection the oldest authentic signed and dated clavichord in the world[1].  This instrument bears the signature:  “DOMINICVS PISAVRENSIS M D XXXXIII” written in ink on the namebatten above the keys.  Although there are no other clavichords by Pisaurensis which can be used for comparison with this one, there seems no reason to doubt the signature on this instrument:  the materials used in the instrument, the case moulding sections and many of the other features of the instrument are all typical of the numerous signed and dated virginals and harpsichords by Pisaurensis which are also thought to be authentic.  Being Italian in origin, this clavichord is also a rarity, there being very few surviving historical clavichords which were made in Italy.



Photograph 1 – Plan view showing the soundboard, bridges and keylevers

Dominicus Pisaurensis clavichord, Venice, 1543

Leipzig Musikinstrumentenmuseum der Universität, Clavichorde, Cat. No. 1 


            The instrument is basically rectangular in shape but with the two rear corners angled at roughly 45° about half way along the ends.  Most north-European clavichords have a keyboard recessed into the front of the case.  However, like most virginals built in the Italian tradition, this clavichord has a projecting keyboard and, also in the Italian tradition, the case sides are attached to the edges of the baseboard rather than sitting on top of it as is common in instruments built north of the Alps.  The compass is C/E to c3 four octaves with, like virtually all other sixteenth-century Italian keyboard instruments, a bass short octave.  The small size of the instrument and its short string lengths indicate that it must have been designed to sound at a pitch considerably higher than normal. 


There are three separate straight bridges rather than the continuous curved bridge common on most later Italian and North-European clavichords.  All three of the bridges are positioned at right angles to the strings and none of the bridges has bridgepins.  Adequate contact between the string and bridge therefore relies entirely on the down-draft of the string between the bridge and tuning pins.  In order to provide sufficient down-draft for the treble bridge which is located far from the tuning pins, the soundboard has to slope down from the left-hand soundboard area to the wrestplank on the right.  The treble bridge is placed on the raised left-hand section of the soundboard and the two right-hand bridges are placed on the sloping section of the right-hand portion of the soundboard.  All three of the bridges are loose and are not glued to the soundboard so that the maker’s intended string lengths are determined by the correct placement of the bridges.  There are however no marks or other indications on the soundboard which show the position of the bridges when the instrument left the hands of the maker.  Therefore there is no guarantee that the present string scalings measured using the positions of these moveable bridges are correct.  Indeed as will be shown below the present positions of the bridges on the instrument are more-or-less arbitrary.  There is the usual bichord stringing throughout and there is a combination of double, triple and quadruple fretting.  Because there is no guarantee that the present bridge positions are original, there also can be no guarantee that the temperament calculated from the strings lengths resulting from the fret positions is correct either.


Like a number of other clavichords of the early period this instrument has a plank of wood, similar to the wood of the soundboard, placed underneath the keylevers.  Also like other similar instruments, the keylevers splay outwards away from the rear ends of the touchplates.  Unusually, however, the ends of the keylevers themselves are straight right to the end where the rack pins are placed, and not angled or curved so that the end of the keylever finishes in a direction perpendicular to the spine side of the instrument.  This feature is not particularly clear in Photograph 1 because the ends of the keylevers are covered by the listing cloth woven into the strings just behind the tangents and over the keytails.


            This paper deals with the design of the case, stringing and fretting of only the 1543 Pisaurensis clavichord and is not meant to be a comparative study of this instrument with a number of other instruments which are similar in concept or design.  Although it would doubtless be very instructive to use methods similar to those used here for such a study, time and space does not permit such an extensive investigation here.


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[1] See:  Hubert Henkel, Clavichorde, Katalog des Musikinstrumentenmuseums der Karl-Marx Universität Leipzig, Vol. 4, (VEB Deutscher Verlag für Musik, Leipzig, 1981) No. 1, pp. 21-23, Plate 1, Plate 46 (where, aside from being up-side down, the correct photo is at the bottom of the page and not above the bottom photo), and Plate 59.