The harpsichord is a striking instrument that enjoyed great popularity during the Baroque and Classic periods – until it was replaced by a new invention, the fortepiano. In the1600s its popularity and use had spread all around Europe and all major composers wrote pieces for it. From the early singled keyboard Italian works to the more developed ones with even different temperaments, here is a list for you to enjoy. 

1Giovanni Picchi: Danze et Toccata

Picchi was an influential Italian composer from the early Baroque period, and the only Venetian from his time to write dance music for the harpsichord. Here is organist and harpsichordist Ton Koopman playing on an Italian harpsichord.

2Louis and François Couperin

In Baroque France, the Couperin brothers, Louis and François –  part of a talented family of musicians – left a wide legacy of harpsichord music. Their compositions became a benchmark for European harpsichord repertoire.

3Domenico Scarlatti: Sonatas K2, K213, K208

Another milestone in the development of the keyboard repertoire are the 555 sonatas composed by Domenico Scarlatti. Even though they are composed by a single, short movement, they show interesting resources in harmonies and an influence from Spanish traditional music: in some of them you can hear turns such as those of a Spanish guitar.

4J. S. Bach: Concerto for harpsichord no. 1 in D minor, BWV 1052

We move to Northern Europe to pay a visit to our beloved J. S. Bach who, of course, also wrote music for the harpsichord. By this time, the harpsichord had evolved technically and had two set of chords, for a richer sound. Works for solo harpsichord and orchestra were a novelty, and apparently Bach composed them to showcase his keyboard expertise. We listen here to the young and gifted harpsichordist Jean Rondau.

5J. S. Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

We can’t help but to include more than one piece by J. S. Bach so here it goes: the Goldberg Variations played by another talented young harpsichordist, Mahan Esfahani.


6Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer: La marche des Scythes

French builders continue to develop the harpsichord (or clavecin) further in the attempt to gain more expressiveness and allow rapid changes. In this virtuosic work from French composer Royer it is clear that you need a technically advanced instrument as well as quick fingers!

7G. F. Handel: Brockes Passion, HWV 48

Handel was a prolific composer who played the harpsichord, composed solo and accompanied works for the instrument as well as conducting and rehearsing from its keys. We have here a fragment from a fabulous oratorio, the Brockes Passion with Steven Devine conducting from the keyboard, just as Handel did.

8G. F. Handel: Aminta e Fillide, HWV 83: “E un foco que’l d’amore”

The harpsichord was important as a solo instrument but also as a continuo for vocal works, setting the harmonics and the rhythm for the piece. In this aria from the cantata Aminta e Fillide you can hear how the harpsichord sound mixes nicely with the other plucked instruments, not to mention how beautifully supports the voice.

9L. v. Beethoven: Sonatas per il clavicembalo o piano-forte, no. 1, 8 & 14

Believe it or not, the harpsichord was still in use in Beethoven’s time and he played and composed on it. Although he would have had access to the finest fortepianos of his time, and indeed explored their possibilities widely, some keyboard compositions from his first period were published “per il Clavicembalo o Piano-Forte”  – being the Sonata no. 14 the last one to appear with that title.

10Harpsichordist Wanda Landowska played a vital role in the revival of the harpsichord on the early 20th century. Both Francis Poulenc and Manuel de Falla composed harpsichord concertos for her.

The 20th century had witnessed a renewed and increasing interest in the harpsichord possibilities and sounds. Currently, composers are exploring and composing for the instrument in many ways. To learn more, read the guest article about modern harpsichord written by contemporary harpsichordist Goska Isphording.