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Trevor Pinnock at the harpsichord Trevor Pinnock 2.jpg
Trevor Pinnock at the harpsichord

A harpsichordist is a person who plays the harpsichord. Harpsichordists may play as soloists, as accompanists, as chamber musicians, or as members of an orchestra, or some combination of these roles. Solo harpsichordists may play unaccompanied sonatas for harpsichord or concertos accompanied by orchestra. Accompanist harpsichordists might accompany singers or instrumentalists (e.g., a violinist or Baroque flute player), either playing works written for a voice (or an instrument) and harpsichord or an orchestral reduction of the orchestra parts. Chamber musician harpsichordists could play in small groups of instrumentalists, such as a quartet or quintet. Baroque-style orchestras and opera pit orchestras typically have a harpsichordist to play the chords in the basso continuo part.



Many baroque composers played the harpsichord, including Johann Sebastian Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, George Frideric Handel, François Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau. At this time, it was common for such musicians also to play the organ, and all keyboard instruments, and to direct orchestral music while playing continuo on the instrument.

Modern harpsichord playing can be roughly divided into three eras, beginning with the career of the influential reviver of the instrument, Wanda Landowska. At this stage of the 'harpsichord revival', players generally used harpsichords of a heavy, piano-influenced type made by makers such as Pleyel; the revival of the instrument also led some composers to write specifically for the instrument, often on the request of Landowska. An influential later group of English players using post-Pleyel instruments by Thomas Goff and the Goble family included George Malcolm and Thurston Dart.

Beginning in the 1920s, Gavin Williamson and Philip Manuel also helped popularize the harpsichord through concert tours, and were the world's only full-time harpsichord duo, known as Manuel and Williamson, performing throughout North American and Europe. They had studied for many years with Wanda Landowska both in France and in New York. In the 1930s Manual and Williamson made the first recordings of the Bach multiple keyboard concerti with members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the duo also gave the American premiere performance of Bach's Concerto in C major for two harpsichords. In addition, they gave American premieres of many works of Couperin and Rameau, among other composers. [1]

The next generation of harpsichordists were pioneers of modern performance on instruments built according to the authentic practices of the earlier period, following the research of such scholar-builders as Frank Hubbard and William Dowd. This generation of performers included such players as Isohlde Ahlgrimm, Ralph Kirkpatrick, Igor Kipnis, and Gustav Leonhardt. More recently, many outstanding harpsichordists have appeared, such as Scott Ross, Trevor Pinnock, Kenneth Gilbert, Christopher Hogwood, Jos van Immerseel, Ton Koopman, Gary Cooper, David Schrader, and John Butt, with many of them also directing a baroque orchestra from the instrument.


Harpsichord, like other art music instruments, is typically studied in a post-secondary university or music conservatory program, leading to a diploma or degree. As harpsichord playing requires an extensive knowledge of Baroque performance practice (regarding realizing figured bass parts, adding ornaments, playing with correct style and articulation), harpsichordists may take courses in Baroque music history. There is a tradition for some harpsichordists, dating back to Thurston Dart (1921 –1971) to combine historical musicology research and harpsichord playing. Since a professional Baroque keyboard player may be asked to play some pieces on pipe organ or portative organ (Ton Koopman is an example of a harpsichordist/organist), harpsichordists may also study organ. Some harpsichordists develop an interest in a wider range of early music, and they may study the fortepiano, a forerunner to the modern piano.

With the exception of joining a Baroque orchestra, most harpsichord jobs are likely to be contracts for individual concerts or a series of concerts. Like other Classical and Baroque instrumentalists, harpsichordists may also teach their instrument, either in private lessons or at a university or conservatory. A harpsichordist with an advanced knowledge of singing may be able to become a vocal coach or choir conductor (George Malcolm (1917–1997) was a harpsichordist and choirmaster). A harpsichordist with an advanced knowledge of orchestral music and conducting might become a conductor, in the Baroque tradition, in which the conductor leads from the keyboard, like Trevor Pinnock.

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Gustav Leonhardt

Gustav Leonhardt was a Dutch keyboard player, conductor, musicologist, teacher and editor. He was a leading figure in the movement to perform music on period instruments. Leonhardt professionally played many instruments, including the harpsichord, pipe organ, claviorganum, clavichord, fortepiano and piano. He also conducted orchestras and choruses.

Masaaki Suzuki

Masaaki Suzuki is a Japanese organist, harpsichordist and conductor, and the founder and music director of the Bach Collegium Japan. With this ensemble he is recording the complete choral works of Johann Sebastian Bach for the Swedish label BIS Records, for which he is also recording Bach's concertos, orchestral suites, and solo works for harpsichord and organ. He is also an artist-in-residence at Yale University and the principal guest conductor of its Schola Cantorum, and has conducted orchestras and choruses around the world.

Ton Koopman

Antonius Gerhardus Michael (Ton) Koopman is a Dutch conductor, organist and harpsichordist. He is also professor at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague. In April 2003 he was knighted in the Netherlands, receiving the Order of the Netherlands Lion.

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George John Malcolm CBE KSG was an English pianist, organist, composer, harpsichordist, and conductor.

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Christophe Rousset is a French harpsichordist and conductor, who specializes in the performance of Baroque music on period instruments. He is also a musicologist, particularly of opera and European music of the 17th and 18th centuries and is the founder of the French music ensemble Les Talens Lyriques.

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Keyboard concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach

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Baroque music Style of Western art music

Baroque music is a period or style of Western art music composed from approximately 1600 to 1750. This era followed the Renaissance music era, and was followed in turn by the Classical era, with the galant style marking the transition between Baroque and Classical eras. The Baroque period is divided into three major phases: early, middle, and late. Overlapping in time, they are conventionally dated from 1580 to 1650, from 1630 to 1700, and from 1680 to 1750. Baroque music forms a major portion of the "classical music" canon, and is now widely studied, performed, and listened to. The term "baroque" comes from the Portuguese word barroco, meaning "misshapen pearl". Key composers of the Baroque era include Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, George Frideric Handel, Claudio Monteverdi, Domenico Scarlatti, Alessandro Scarlatti, Henry Purcell, Georg Philipp Telemann, Jean-Baptiste Lully, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Arcangelo Corelli, François Couperin, Giuseppe Tartini, Heinrich Schütz, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, Dieterich Buxtehude, and others.

Martin Pearlman

Martin Pearlman is an American conductor, harpsichordist, composer, and early music specialist. He founded the first permanent Baroque orchestra in North America with Boston Baroque in 1973–74. Many of its original players went on to play in or direct other ensembles in what became a growing field in the American music scene. He later founded the chorus of that ensemble and has been the music director of Boston Baroque from its inception up to the present day.

Alan George Cuckston is an English harpsichordist, pianist, conductor, and lecturer.

Philip Manuel

Philip Manuel was an American pianist, organist, harpsichordist and music educator. With pianist, organist and harpsichordist Gavin Williamson, he formed a duo in 1922, known as Manuel and Williamson, that helped promote the use of harpsichords as concert instruments. In the spring of 1935, the duo were the first professionals to play Bach's Concerto for Four Harpsichords in the United States on this instrument.

Johann Sebastian Bach's music has been performed by musicians of his own time, and in the second half of the eighteenth century by his sons and students, and by the next generations of musicians and composers such as the young Beethoven. Felix Mendelssohn renewed the attention for Bach's music by his performances in the 19th century. In the 20th century Bach's music was performed and recorded by artists specializing in the music of the composer, such as Albert Schweitzer, Helmut Walcha and Karl Richter. With the advent of the historically informed performance practice Bach's music was prominently featured by artists such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Gustav Leonhardt and Sigiswald Kuijken.


  1. Gavin Williamson: Helped save harpsichord, Chicago Trubune, retrieved 11 July 2014

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