Early 17th century, modified in the 19th century
Wood, brass, parchment, ivory
In the centuries before television and the internet offered endless options for amusement, music was the primary form of family entertainment. Some played instruments, others sang, and those who lacked musical talents were appreciative audience members. Musical performances were especially popular during the long, dark nights of winter. For that reason, Agecroft’s collection of musical instruments is currently on view in the house.
Some instruments of the Tudor period look familiar to modern eyes. The lute, for example, is clearly one of the forerunners of the modern guitar. Others look more exotic. Agecroft’s clavicytherium (pronounced klav-uh-sahy-theer-ee-uh m) is one such instrument. While relatively unknown today, the clavicytherium has a long history. The concept for the instrument developed as early as 1460, and the instrument was used in musical compositions throughout the Tudor and Stuart periods. Interestingly, the oldest surviving string instrument keyboard instrument is a clavicytherium which dates to the late 15th century.
A clavicytherium is an upright harpsichord, with the body, sounding-board, and strings set vertically instead of horizontally. The main advantage of that design is that the instrument takes up less floor space than a traditional harpsichord. It also has the added benefit of more directly projecting the sound into the player’s ears and into the room behind them. However, the upright design does present one giant problem: On a harpsichord, when the musician strikes a key, a jack is driven upwards to strike the string thereby producing the sound. Then gravity neatly returns the jack to its starting position ready to strike again. The upright case of a clavicytherium, on the other hand, does not offer an easy solution for the jack’s return. Over the years, artisans experimented with a variety of technical approaches, and many clavicytheria have unique solutions, but no one design ever gained widespread acceptance. The mechanical challenges are likely a key reason why the clavicytherium never became a particularly popular instrument – especially in England. Unfortunately, due to the construction of our piece, we cannot see how the mechanism in ours works.
Research on our clavicytherium has shown that the instrument was originally a seventeenth-century harpsichord and was probably converted to its current state in the nineteenth century. It has 38 white keys and 20 black keys and brass strings. This instrument has been on display since the beginning of the Christmas season and will soon be going back into storage to rest. Be sure to come take a tour soon to catch this object while it’s on display! In the meantime, if you are wondering what a clavicytherium sounds like, check out this video in which a gentleman is playing an 18th century piece on one: clavicytherium.