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Pianos & Harpsichords

A discussion of pianofortes vs harpsichords

Would our heroes and heroines of the Georgian era have owned a piano or harpsichord, and of the two, which would they have favoured?

In all likelihood, they would have owned both, and possibly more than one pianoforte given how inexpensive they were at the time. Of the two, however, the harpsichord would have been preferred.

The harpsichord was an instrument of status and wealth. They were, frankly, stunningly beautiful. They looked like what we think of as a grand piano, but with elaborate hand painted murals.

The pianoforte was introduced mid-18th century, but it lacked the glamour of the harpsichord, and the sound and action took getting used to since the strings were hammered rather than plucked. All pianos were small spinets and not the least impressive to behold. They were, however, inexpensive enough that the middle class could afford them. Thus, at first, the less-wealthy owned (or rented) pianos, while the wealthy owned harpsichords (and probably a pianoforte or five, as well). So inexpensive, they were often gifted to friends and family.

The harpsichord remained the instrument of choice, however, between the two. They were large, gorgeous, impressive, and only accessible by the wealthy. The sound, look, and action were preferred.

The harpsichord was notably without defects, but every piano had at least one defect.

Given the sluggish action of the pianoforte, it made it difficult for virtuoso playing. Anyone truly accomplished at playing would wish to show their skill on a harpsichord.

Not until 1808, when the grand piano was created, complete with fast action for virtuoso playing, did the popularity begin to shift. The sound had improved, and now the look was just as impressive as the harpsichord. From this point forward, there were continued improvements to the sound, action, and woodwork of the pianoforte, namely the spinets, until in 1814, a spinet was just as classy as the harpsichord.

Ultimately, by the Regency, it came down to personal taste rather than status or wealth. A well-designed spinet could be just as impressive as a grand piano, while a well-designed harpsichord could be just as impressive as a grand piano. It came down to sound, look, and personal preference.

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