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Colour photograph of the clavicytherium, RCM 1RCM 1
Clavicytherium: ?South German, c. 1480

1 Inscriptions
2 Brief description
3 Case
4a Keyboard
4b Jacks
5 Scalings and disposition
6 Decoration
7 History of earlier states and restorations
8 Commentary
8a Copy, RCM 1a, Adlam Burnett, Goudhurst, 1973 (with audio example)
9 Provenance
10 References

1 Inscriptions

The instrument is neither signed nor dated.

In ink, on the inside of the front of the base: ‘Vorders’; on the inside of the back of the base: ‘hinders’; in ink on bottom sticker: ‘primo basso’; on top sticker: ‘ultimo sopran’; painted on outside of door: ‘SUSTINE ET ABSTINE.’; red seal on door: ‘[? … (indecipherable)] \ DI \ CHIASSO’

2 Brief description

An upright single-strung harpsichord in an outer case, ?South German, possibly built in Ulm, c. 1480; believed to be the earliest surviving stringed keyboard instrument.

3 Case

Height: 1424 excluding base
Backboard: coniferous, c. 4.5 thick; case sides surround the backboard
Spine: poplar, 79 deep, 189 deep at keyboard, c. 5.5 thick
Cheek: poplar, 401 high, c. 4.8 thick
Bentside: poplar, c. 5.7 thick
Case width at plucking line level: 627 outside, 614 inside
Base: poplar, 635 wide, 204 deep
Framing: lower belly rail: coniferous (spruce), curved upper belly rail supporting edge of soundboard, curved cutoff bar
Wrestplank: walnut; wrestplank moulding: pear
Soundboard: coniferous (spruce), 2.5 thick at its projecting lower edge, 2.3 thick at upper and lower rose holes; soundboard roses: originally 3; remaining (middle) rose: pierced layers of lime and parchment, 92.7 high, 44 wide; upper rose hole: 100 high, 59 wide; lower: diameter 24; nut and bridge: pear; branched bridge, not back-pinned, fastened to the soundboard with trenails

: 2 jackrail brackets (probably not original)
Outer case: coniferous, sides set onto backboard
Ironware: 4 hinges, leaf-shaped; 3 hooks

4a Keyboard

Compass: currently E to g2 (B and f# keys missing), 40 notes; originally E, ‘E#’, F, G (without F#) to g2, 40 notes
Keywell span: 616
Keyboard width at natural fronts: c. 613; average 3-octave span: 528
Keybed: coniferous
Action cover: coniferous
Keylevers: ?maple, back-guided by iron pins; balance point to front of natural: 101 (current), 83 (original)
Naturals: current bone covers in 1 piece; scribed lines: 2 (not original); current natural fronts: embossed and gilded paper or leather; originals: carved
Sharp blocks: current: covered in marquetry, in chevron patterns; length at base 42; originals ?27

4b Jacks

Jacks: poplar or lime; tongues: beech; ‘stickers’ (lifters): coniferous; damper slots: none; traces of damper felt, probably not original, on upper sides of jacks; keylever, sticker and jack form a rigid assembly. The balance point of the key is so arranged that a small downward movement results in a proportionally larger forward movement of the jack.
Register: jack guide pins on top edge of wrestplank: iron
Jackrail: missing

5 Scalings and disposition

One set of 8ft strings

String scalings



Plucking point




























Gauge numbers: none
Surviving string fragments are mostly of yellow brass

6 Decoration

The clavicytherium is elaborately decorated with finely carved parchment and wood tracery along the front edge of the soundboard, spine liner and belly rail. It has three rose holes cut into the soundboard, two in the shape of ogee windows, the third circular in shape. Only the middle ogee window rose survives; it consists of three levels of tracery, the bottom level being backed by painted and gilded parchment, and it was originally set in on a frame, now detached (see 7). 

The surface of the soundboard is decorated with alternate gold and black lozenges around the roses and its perimeter and with turned ivory studs along its front edge. The ends of the branches on the bridge (which represents the Tree of Life) are painted red and back alternately.

The space between the soundboard front edge and the lower belly rail contains a landscape in relief. It may originally have been a Calvary or a scene in the life of a saint but much of it is now missing. Before the gold, blue, green and red colours faded, the instrument must have had a spectacular appearance; fragments of ground minerals or glass glued to the background give a glistening effect.

Samples of blue paint from the ‘sky’ and red from the belly rail decoration have been examined by the National Gallery Scientific Department, using optical microscopy and spectrographic analysis with the laser microprobe (LMA). Four layers of blue paint were found, containing indigo, azurite, smalt and indigo respectively; the red was vermilion. The use of indigo and vermilion is consistent with an early date.  Azurite is the most commonly found blue pigment in 15th-century painting of all kinds, certainly in the northern-European countries, and underpainting with indigo has been noted in a late 15th-century Venetian picture frame (Roy 1986).

The outer case door has on the inside a painting of Vanity and on the outside, Christ standing above a papal crown, cardinal’s hat, crown, sceptre and the words ‘SUSTINE ET ABSTINE.’ (‘bear and forbear’, a Stoic maxim, associated with Epictetus; it also appears in paintings of Bernard of Clairvaux, with three mitres on the ground because he declined an episcopate three times).  These paintings are later in date than the instrument.

7 History of earlier states and restorations

The clavicytherium has escaped major alteration but has been modified in three principal areas: the wrestplank, keyboard and case sides. The wrestplank must have come loose at some time; its housings have been reinforced rather crudely and it has been given extra thickness with a beech plank attached underneath. The original keys are very short; they were later lengthened and lead weights were added. There is no trace left of the original key facings or sharps. Nicholas Meeùs was the first to point out that the present E key has, under its replacement facing, a blocked-in cut-out for a sharp, indicating that the present key order is not the original one (Meeùs 1971).

The base, cheeks and outer case have been extended at the front to match the lengthened keys. Additional strips of wood have been glued to the outside of the spine and cheek in the region of the wrestplank. This may have been to help secure the wrestplank when it came loose. Nailed on top of these strips are two bent strips of iron which may once have held a jackrail. There are also some holes in the spine and cheek which could have held pins to secure a jackrail. There is no evidence of any other way in which the key-dip could have been controlled.

The thin board which slid into the grooves at the back of the instrument is missing; it provided access to the action and allowed keys to be removed. There was once a batten above the keys, fixed to the bottom edge of the wrestplank.

The keys of the clavicytherium are at present numbered in ink to give a chromatic compass of E to g2. The inscriptions ‘Primo basso’ and ‘ultimo sopran’ on the bottom and top stickers are in a 17th-century hand that could be Venetian. This numbering was done after the E key was modified, so it does not identify the original key order. There is no trace, even under ultra-violet and infra-red light, of an earlier sequence of numbers on the keys or jacks. Two of the keys are missing while others are badly damaged, which makes it difficult to identify their original positions. These difficulties are increased by the fact that the keyboard facings have been replaced, possibly when the present compass was adopted.

Despite this, sufficient evidence remains to indicate the original compass as E, ‘E#’, F, G (without F#) to g2.  The evidence for this compass is found in the spacing of the balance pins. The key cranking begins beyond the balance pin holes, so the spacing of the pins closely matches the characteristic pattern of the natural and sharp keys. X-rays of the instrument, construction marks and other details show that the key panel, balance rail and keybed are original and thus establish the above compass as original.

In order to confirm the original order of the keys, the distal end of each key was viewed under intense, oblique light. Under these conditions it was possible to see the growth rings and medullary rays of the wood on all but one key. Combining this with evidence such as the cranking, the position of knots and other marks on the keypanel, it was possible to deduce that the keypanel was made from three boards and to establish the key order.

The compass alteration was carried out by moving the original F key (now number 4) to the G position, recutting its right-hand face to accommodate the G#. The G key was moved down to become the F key and the E# key was moved up to become F#. The latter two keys needed new balance pin positions to maintain the correct alignment of the keyboard. The final modification was to fill in the sharp cut-out in key number 1. The remainder of the keyboard was left unchanged (Debenham, 1978, Debenham 1983).

The reason that the present numbering is out of sequence in some places after the first four keys could be that the keys became disordered because they were not originally numbered. The errors were then frozen in when the present numbering of the keys was done.

The instrument is shown on a painted stand, now missing, in earlier paintings and photographs; they also show the surviving rose and frame attached above the soundboard  (see Hipkins 1888, Vienna 1892).

8 Commentary

The decoration, compass and short wide keys all suggest a date of origin from c. 1480 to 1500; attempts to obtain a dendrochronological dating from photographs have so far been unsuccessful.

The word ‘Vorders’ (‘front’) and ‘hinders’ (‘back’) are inscribed upside down inside the base and must have been written by the maker before he assembled the base so it can be assumed that he was German-speaking.

Part of a legal document glued across a split in the back reads: ‘Ich Bartlome Abelle Wingartner und burger zu Ulme Bergich offennlich für mich und \ dissem vriene dass ich mitt gutem willen dem ersamen und wisen diettrich ungeltern \ burger zu ulm und allen sine […]’ [some stems of next line visible]. The script has been dated 1470–80 and Diettrich Ungeltern, a member of a patrician family in Ulm, is known to have contracted another deed in 1471. Although this strip must have been applied later, it may indicate that the instrument was made in Ulm; this city is not known as an early centre for instrument building, however, and Nuremberg would seem a more likely source for such an instrument.  Ulm had close trading links with Venice, so contact with the Contarini family would have been possible (information from Dr Weig,  Stadtarchiv Ulm). Another fragment of similar German script has been glued as a repair around the detached rose frame.

Sound holes in the form of windows are to be seen on other instruments of this period and in paintings.

Derek Adlam has suggested that the compass could be interpreted as F, G (without F#) to g2 (Virdung’s compass), with 2 pedal notes to be tuned according to need.

Sophisticated in design and craftsmanship, the clavicytherium can be seen as the product of a building tradition already well established. The instrument is now in an extremely frail state because of woodworm infestation in the past. As it was clear that it could not survive repeated examination, Derek Adlam was asked to make a drawing and a playable copy for the Museum in 1970.  Funded by a donation from Mr and Mrs Graham Carritt, the copy was completed by Adlam Burnett under Derek Adlam’s direction in 1973 (Wells, 1984).  Certain elements are hypothetical and because the original compass had not then been established, the copy was made with the current (short octave) compass.

top of page

8a Copy, RCM 1a, Adlam Burnett, Goudhurst, 1973

For audio examples of this instrument click here.

9 Provenance

Gift of Sir George Donaldson, 1894. From the mid 17th century, the clavicytherium was preserved in the Contarini Collection and then the Correr Collection near Venice. It was sent to London for the International Inventions Exhibition in 1885, which Donaldson helped to organise, after which he acquired it from Count Pietro Correr (the seal on the outer case is probably a customs stamp dating from this journey).

10 References

Technical drawing by William Debenham

Guide to the Loan Collection and List of Musical Instruments &c in the International Inventions Exhibition, London, 1885, (London: William Clowes & Sons Ltd, 1885), p.85

B William Dale, Brief Description of Spinets, Virginals, Harpsichords, Clavichords and Pianos... in the Inventions Exhibition, 1885, p.3

A J Hipkins, illustrated by William Gibb, Musical Instruments, Historic, Rare and Unique (Edinburgh: A & C Black, 1888), pl.VI

Die Internationale Ausstellung für Musik-und Theaterwesen 1892 (Wien: Moritz Perles, 1894), p.70 & pl.XVI nos.13 & 16, p.215

Sir George Donaldson, Catalogue of the Musical Instruments and Objects Forming The Donaldson Museum (London: Waterlow & Sons, 1894), pl.I

A J Hipkins, A Description and History of the Piano-forte and of the older keyboard stringed instruments (London: Novello, 1896), p.74–5

J A Fuller Maitland, editor, A Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edition, 5 volumes (London: Macmillan, 1904, 1906, 1907, 1908 & 1910), 1904, v.1 p.552; 1906, v.2 p.328

Ernest Kuhe, ‘For Students of the Arts: III–The Royal College of Music’, Lady’s Pictorial, January 1916, ill. p.121

A J Hipkins, illustrated by William Gibb, Musical Instruments, Historic, Rare and Unique (London: A & C Black, 1921), p.13 & pl.VI

Jeffrey Pulver, A Dictionary of Old English Music and Musical Instruments (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubuer & Co, 1923), p.47

Robert de la Condamine, ‘The Donaldson Museum at the Royal College of Music’, Apollo, 1926, p.48 & ill. p.47

H C Colles, editor, A Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 3rd edition, 5 volumes (London: Macmillan, 1927 vols 1–3, 1928 vols 4 & 5), v.1 p.663; v.2 p.544

Canon Francis Galpin, ‘A Forgotten Treasure House of Old Musical Instruments’, The Bazaar, June 1928, p.880 & ill. p.882

Philip James, Early Keyboard Instruments (London: Peter Davies, 1930), p.113 & pl.XXXIII

Percy Colson, ‘Early Musical Instruments in the Donaldson Museum at the Royal College of Music, Part II’, The Connoisseur, ?1936, ill. p.266

Francis W Galpin, A Textbook of European Musical Instruments (London: Williams & Morgate, 1937), p.107

H C Colles, editor, A Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 4th edition, 5 volumes with supplementary volume (London: Macmillan, 1948), v.1 p.657; v.2 p.544

Eric Blom, editor, A Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th edition, 9 volumes with supplementary volume (London: Macmillan, 1954 & 1961), v.2 p.339

Franz Josef Hirt, Meisterwerke des Klavierbaus (Olten: Urs Graf Verlag, 1955), p.292–3 & ill.

Keith Spence, ‘Instruments our ancestors played’, Country Life Annual, 1966, pp.37–8 & ill. p. 37

Rene Clemencic, tr. D Hermges, Old Musical Instruments (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1968), p.88 & ill

Nicolas Meeùs, La Naissance de L’Octave Coute et ses differentes formes au 16e siecle (Louvain: Université Catolique, 1971), p.88

Raymond Russell, The Harpsichord and Clavichord, 2nd edition (London: Faber & Faber, 1973), p.30

Maria Boxall, Review of Howard Schott, Playing the Harpsichord (London: Faber & Faber, 1971), The Galpin Society Journal, XXVII (1974), p.142

Edwin M Ripin, ‘Towards an Identification of the Chekker’, The Galpin Society Journal, XXVIII (1975), p.11 & ftnt 8, p.24

Musical Instruments of the World 1976: Musical Instruments of the World (London: Paddington Press, 1976) 1976, p.233

William Debenham, ‘The Compass of the Royal College of Music Clavicytherium’, Bulletin of the Fellowship of Makers and Restorers of Historical Instruments, 11 (1978), pp.19–21

John Henry van der Meer, ‘A contribution to the history of the clavicytherium’, Early Music, April 1978, p.255 & ftnt 34

Mary Remnant, Musical Instruments of the West (London: B T Batsford, 1978), pp.82–3 & pl.66

Elizabeth Wells, ‘The London Clavicytherium’, Early Music, (October 1978), p.569–571 & ill.

John Henry van der Meer, correspondence relating to ‘A contribution to the history of the clavicytherium’, Early Music, January 1979, p.140 (correspondence)

Stanley Sadie, editor, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 20 volumes (London: Macmillan, 1980), v.4 p.469     

John Henry van der Meer, Musikinstrumente (Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1983), p.29 & ill.

Stanley Sadie editor, The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments (London: Macmillan, 1984), v.1 p.427; v.2 p.172

Elizabeth Wells, The Royal College of Music Museum of Instruments: Guide to the Collection (London: Royal College of Music, 1984), p.5 & ill. p.16

Ashok Roy, Royal College of Music –Early Painted Musical Instruments, RCM 1 Clavicytherium, RCM 2 Harpsichord (unpublished report written for the Museum, London, 1986, © RCM) , p.1–2

Edward Ripin et al, The New Grove Musical Instrument Series: Early Keyboard Instruments (London: Macmillan, 1989), p.179–81 & ill.

Mary Remnant, Musical Instruments (London: B T Batsford, 1989), p.87 & ill.

Anthony Baines, The Oxford Companion to Musical Instruments (London: Oxford University Press, 1992), p.73 & ill.

Mary Remnant, ‘Medieval Musical Instruments’, Medieval World, 7, July/August 1992, p.38 & ill.

John Koster, Keyboard Musical Instruments in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1994), p.14 ftnt 53

Elizabeth Wells, ‘The Clavicytherium (c 1480) and its ‘copy’ in the Royal College of Music Museum, London’, Copies of Historic Musical Instruments (CIMCIM Publication no.3, 1994), also on the website of the International Committee of Musical Instrument Museums and Collections, http://www.icom.org/cimcim, pp.28–34 & ill.

John Koster ‘Toward a History of the Earliest Harpsichords’, unpublished proceedings of the conference 600 Jahre Cembalobau in Österreich, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, October 1997

Edward Kottick & George Lucktenberg, Early Keyboard Instruments in European Museums (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1997), pp.233–4 & ill.

Wraight 1997: Denzil Wraight, The Stringing of Italian Keyboard Instruments c. 1500–c. 1650, PhD dissertation, The Queen’s University of Belfast, 1997 (order No. 9735109, UMI Dissertation Services), v.1 p.15 & ftnt 15; v.2 p.425

John Koster, ‘Pitch and Transposition before the Ruckers’ in Kielinstrumente aus der Werkstatt Ruckers (Bericht über die Internationale Konferenz, September 1996; Schriften des Händel-Hauses in alle, 14), edited by Christiane Rieche (Halle an der Saale: Händel-Haus, 1998), p.83

John Koster, ‘Some Remarks on the Relationship Between Organ and Stringed-Keyboard Instrument Making’, Early Keyboard Journal, 18 (2000), pp.120 –1, 124, 129 & ill. p.122

Denzil Wraight, ‘Arnaut’s clavisimbalum Mechanisms’, Bulletin of the Fellowship of Makers and Restorers of Historical Instruments, 100 (2000), p.33

John Koster, ‘Cathedrals, Cabinetmaking and Clavichords’ parts 2 and 3, Clavichord International, v.4 no.2 (November 2000) and v.5 no.1 (May 2001) & 2001


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