Chiefly associated with renaissance and baroque music, Bach remains arguably the master composer of the harpsichord. In modern classical music, Iannis Xenakis, Philip Glass and particularly György Ligeti radically redefined the harpsichord's function and playing. In the 1960s, the harpsichord had something of a resurgence in "baroque pop", thanks to experiments in instrumentation by the likes of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Left Banke.
Who, in fact, was the great harpsichord composer of the time? — it was Couperin. He was to the harpsichord what Chopin was to the piano. He developed its possibilities to the utmost : the very structure, figure and ornament of his works.
Should Bach's keyboard music be played on a harpsichord or piano? Some harpsichordists believe it's blasphemy to play Bach on the piano.
The harpsichord is particularly effective in performing contrapuntal music -- that is, music that consists of two or more melodies played at the same time, such as that of the German composer Johann Sebastian Bach.
A drawback to the instrument is the fact that the player has no control over the loudness and quality of the tone, since that tone is produced by the single pluck. During the period of about 400 years when it was a major keyboard instrument, variations were made to partially overcome this limitation.
English harpsichords, in contrast, had a directness and down-to-earth quality both in appearance and sonority with a characteristically powerful tone, a reedy treble and a sonorous bass. Of polished veneered wood, with a straight, plain design, they could equally have one or two manuals. In general terms the harpsichord as a solo instrument was perhaps less popular in Germany than in France or England.
Instruments on the clavichord principle were known in the fourteenth century and appeared to have been popular throughout Europe. By the 16th century it was little used in England and the Low Countries, although many examples can be found in Spain, Italy and Germany. Two strings per note, set closely together so that the tangent played both in unison was established as a general principle. There are early examples of fretted clavichords, where the tangents of adjacent keys hit one double string at the appropriate point.
Harpsichords have also been built in other shapes. These include the virginal, or virginals, a small oblong instrument; the spinet, a small polygonal harpsichord; and the less common clavicytherium, an upright harpsichord. From the 16th to 19th century the terms spinet and virginal were often used interchangeably, and in England during that era any harpsichord was called a virginal.
This instrument is a fine representative of the "expressive double" harpsichord in the early 18th century. Typically the upper manual operates a set of jacks that pluck one choir of strings at 8’ pitch, while the lower manual controls a second choir of strings at 8’ pitch, a choir at 4’ pitch, and may be coupled to the upper manual so that any or all three choirs are accessible from the lower manual.
A stringed keyboard instrument developed during the 14th and 15th century, the harpsichord was widely used until the early 19th century when it was superseded by the piano. 20th century revivals of the instrument feature music of the 16th to 18th centuries with particular emphasis on Bach's music.
One interesting aspect is that the strings are plucked (as opposed to being hammered, as on a piano), with a constant volume, independent of how hard you hit the keys. This leads to completely different techniques to create texture.