Before 1580: A short octave Primer
Those beginning to explore the earlier keyboard instruments may be
unfamiliar with the still older forms dating back to the 14th century.
(where examples do not survive) In fact the most common short octave
C/E...... version doesn't start till after 1500 and was really an
extension of diatonic prototypes. It was a shock to find the keyboard
drawings of Henri Arnault de Zwolle showing apparent chromatic compasses as
early as 1440 when I built my first clavichord based on his diagram.
However organ sources show that the earliest keyboards had only natural
levers marked with letters. This was difficult but then the keys were much
larger and fingering was not to come till later. These keyboards were
largely just keys jutting out from the front and not balanced groomed rows
as we now are used to. Bb and Bnaturals were on the same layer till later.
Bb was the first key to be raised and colored. After 1580 everything
was updated so the evidence must come from text and iconographic sources
(paintings,stained glass, carvings, intarsia,and woodcut printing of
To prove the exsistance of the earlier F,G,A keyboard we are forced to
look beyond the harpsichord because it was the most common altered
instrument from it's introduction. We are conditioned to accept
standardization in our modern world which sets up a bias against anything
different and we need to realize that the keyboard and the pitch of a
keyboard was a varible thing. Where "C or F" was depended on place and
time. Keyboards in Europe might have as few as 20 and as many as 40 or 50
notes depending on the wealth of a patron or parish. Lower pitched keys
were left off to save money and the expense of tuning.Chromatic bass notes
were still a luxury as late as Handel. High pitched octave instruments
often went only to a2 without g#. When we examine the earliest playable
organs spead over Europe do we find the nessesary evidence we need.
The organ in Oosthausen north of Amsterdam may date from 1521 still has
its old keys starting with F,G A (first accidental Bb). So does the earlier
pair of organs at San Pedronio in Bologna. A portative organ in Basel has
the same base and Denzil Wraight has proved that may of the early plucked
keyboards started life this way soon to be altered when the C/E took over.
Clavichords could not be altered and so were discarded. There is one
virginal by Antegnati in Brescia whic still has its original keys
The structure of the harpsichord makes it much to easy to rebuild. Once
you replace the wrestplank you can change registers and keys and sometimes
bridges get moved or re pinned. Several older instruments have had three
lives with evidence destroyed each time. The overwhelming success of the
C/E short octave kept it going till the time of Haydn Mozart and Beethoven.
Bach would have encountered many organs clavichords and harpsichords and
had to work around it.
It is important to know how easily the older F,G,A octave could be
changed by removing the end blocks, adding a single natural key on the end
and cutting out for the F# and G# keys (perhaps a days work would add 3 new
bass notes without spoiling the appearance of the keyboard. John Barnes was
one of the first to discover that the Jerome 1521 was thus altered.
An organ or regal was not so easy to change. Pipes taking up lots more
room than strings. Narrow harpsichords (under 30")
must always therefore be suspect to a key change.
The Viennese multiple broken short octave was locally popular and
reflects the time when short octaves were the norm.
I won't take the time here to discuss these confusing animals which
dominated the keyboard life of Vienna.
Lastly the typical 38 n0te compass of the late 15th and early 16th
Bb C# Eb F# G# Bb C# Eb F# G# Bb C# Eb F#
F G A B C D EF G A BC D EF G A BC D EF G A