action The mechanism by which the movement of fingers on a keyboard instrument are translated into the plucking or striking of a string (on a harpsichord [89.4.2363; 89.4.2929; 89.4.1220], clavichord [1986.239], or piano [89.4.1219]), or the sounding of an organ pipe.
basso continuo The characteristic form of instrumental accompaniment during the Baroque period, ca. 1600–1750. The melodic bass line would often include numerical shorthand indicating what chords to play, which the player would improvise on keyboard, some sort of lute (1988.87), or harp. The chordal player (or players) was sometimes joined by a bass viol (1990.223; 89.4.1343), cello, bassoon, or violone playing the bass melody. The exact composition of a continuo section and the style of chords was rarely specified, but rather left to the performers to devise according to local tradition and the character and context of the piece.
clavichord A European keyboard instrument whose strings are each struck by a metal tangent or blade attached directly to the key, affording the player a very intimate connection between the finger’s touch and the string. Unlike the harpsichord, a clavichord (1986.239) can produce a range of louder or softer dynamics, depending on how hard the key is depressed, and by keeping the tangent in contact with the string, the player can produce effects such as vibrato. The clavichord, in use from the fifteenth through the early nineteenth centuries, functioned mainly as an instrument for study, practice, and composition. It was particularly valued in Germany in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, where the clavichord remained in use long after many other regions had lost interest in it. Its quietness was not suitable for any but the smallest rooms, and so was not commonly used in ensembles, although it was sometimes used to accompany singers. Repertory composed specifically for the clavichord did not appear until the second half of the eighteenth century, with C. P. E. Bach (1714–1788) especially intrigued with the instrument’s subtle expressive capabilities. Beginning in the 1880s with the activities of Arnold Dolmetsch (1858–1940), the clavichord saw a revival with new makers, exploration of performance practices, and repertories.
canzona An Italian polyphonic instrumental form from the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. A canzona (or “canzone”) often began imitatively with a “long-short-short” rhythm, and often consisted of several sections in contrasting moods, meters, and contrapuntal approaches. Giovanni Gabrieli (ca. 1553–1612) wrote dazzling ensemble canzonas for four or more instruments, and Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583–1643) is known for his canzonas for keyboard.
fantasia A free polyphonic instrumental form. From the sixteenth century onward, fantasias have been written in Europe for ensembles of instruments, as well as for instruments capable of playing polyphonically, such as keyboard and lute (1988.87).
fipple A term linked with the mouthpiece of whistle or duct flutes, like the recorder (89.4.2208; 89.4.909; 1982.390; 89.4.912), the penny whistle, the flageolet, and the tabor pipe, as well as many examples in musical cultures around the world. It variably refers to the windway that guides the player’s breath toward a stiff sharp edge, thereby initiating the instrument’s sound; the block that stops up the top end of the mouthpiece; and the entire mouthpiece.
harpsichord A European keyboard instrument whose metal strings are plucked by a plectrum held by a wooden jack, causing its soundboard to amplify the tone. The earliest reference to the harpsichord dates from the late fourteenth century, although the earliest surviving instruments date from the sixteenth. The earliest keyboard repertory, through the sixteenth century, were intabulations (keyboard arrangements) of sacred and secular vocal and instrumental polyphony. In the years around 1600, sets of variations on dances and songs, arrangements of polyphony, and fantasias were written for the English virginal, a popular type of harpsichord whose strings run horizontal to the player. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the harpsichord (89.4.2929) was an important continuo instrument, fulfilling the bass role for everything from solo sonatas to orchestral works to opera. During this same period, as harpsichords became more complex, with increasing ranges, multiple sets of strings (89.4.1220) and keyboards (89.4.2363), and various stops, a wide variety of solo repertories were composed for it by Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583–1643), Henry Purcell (1659–1695), François Couperin (1668–1733), Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764), Domenico Scarlatti (1685–1757), Georg Frideric Handel (1685–1759), and Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), among many others. The harpsichord fell out of use by about 1810, superceded by the piano. Beginning in the 1880s with the activities of Arnold Dolmetsch (1858–1940), the harpsichord saw a revival, with new makers, explorations of performance practices, and repertories, and modern compositions.
motet In the Renaissance, a Latin-texted sacred polyphonic composition whose text is not part of the Mass Ordinary.
octave The musical interval between two notes that are twelve half steps or seven degrees of a major or minor scale apart, and thus share the same letter name, e.g., C to c. In acoustic terms, doubling the frequency of a pitch will result in the pitch one octave higher, e.g., a’ = 440 cycles per second (or Herz), a” = 880 cycles per second.
organ A wind instrument whose sound is produced by rows of various lengths of pipes that produce sound by means of pressurized air controlled by a keyboard. Peter Williams, in his “Organ” article in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (first edition), summarizes the three essentials of all organs, from antiquity to the present day: “a wind-raising device, the chest with pipes and the (keyboard and valve) mechanisms admitting wind to the pipes.” The hydraulic pipe organ was apparently invented as early as the third century B.C. in Alexandria, and a surviving small Roman organ is dated 228 A.D. Organs were not built during the early Middle Ages, but their construction was resumed in the ninth and tenth centuries, bolstered by the growth of monasteries in this period. By the fifteenth century, larger organs (as opposed to the smaller portative and positive organs; 1978.6) often had several stops, allowing the player the choice of various combinations and timbres of flue pipes (the flutelike pipes most commonly found) and reed pipes. From about 1600 onward, organs continued to grow in complexity, gaining multiple keyboards, more stops, a pedalboard (added about 1720), and special effects like tremolo, leading to greater possibilities of color and expression.
polyphony Music composed with two or more melodies. Polyphony may be performed by an ensemble with, for example, one instrument or voice per melodic part, several musicians per melodic part, or by a single instrument capable of playing more than one melody simultaneously, such as an organ or lute (1988.87).
sordellina A bagpipe or musette played in Italy in the mid-seventeenth century. The sordellina was distinguished by its four pipes, including a contrabass drone, and by its small bellows that attached to one’s wrist, so that the player did not have to blow to fill the instrument’s bag. Sordellinas could feature elaborate key systems, allowing more than one note to be sounded simultaneously.
viol A fretted string instrument played with a bow, used by amateurs and professionals in Europe during the late fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries. Viols came in several sizes, most commonly treble, tenor, and bass 89.4.1343, and could be played in consort, as solo instrument, in an obbligato role, or as part of a continuo group. All viols, except the very largest contrabass violones, are played upright between the legs, thus the name “viola da gamba” 1990.223. Most viols had six strings, although later solo bass instruments sometimes had seven. The viol family differs from the violin family in having six strings tuned primarily in fourths rather than fifths, frets on the flat fingerboard, sloping shoulders, thicker ribs, a flat back, and an underhand bowing technique. Much important music was composed for viol, particularly in England in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in France during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and in Germany in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) and others. Since the late nineteenth century, the viol and its literature have been an important part of the early music revival.
viola The alto member of the violin family, tuned c-g-d’-a’, a fifth lower than the violin and an octave higher than a cello. Like the violin, it first appeared in Italy in the sixteenth century; since the seventeenth century, it has been a regular member of the string orchestra.
violoncello The bass member of the violin family, commonly called “cello,” tuned C-G-d-a, an octave lower than the viola. Like the violin, it first appeared in Italy in the sixteenth century. The earliest sixteenth-century cellos had only three strings, with a fourth added later. The cello was supported between the player’s legs until the nineteenth century, when the end pin came into common use. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the cello was often used as part of a basso continuo group, and since the seventeenth century it has been a regular member of the string orchestra. The eighteenth century saw the first virtuosic cello repertory, composed by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), Joseph Haydn (1732–1809), Luigi Boccherini (1743–1805), and others. Later important cello repertory was contributed by Beethoven (1770–1827), Mendelssohn (1809–1847), Chopin (1810–1849), Schumann (1810–1856), Brahms (1833–1897), Dvorák (1841–1904), Elgar (1857–1934), Shostakovich (1906–1975), Britten (1913–1976), and other composers.
Powers, Wendy. “Musical Terms for the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/musd/hd_musd.htm (October 2003)
Dobney, Jayson Kerr, and Wendy Powers. “The Guitar.” (September 2007)
Powers, Wendy. “The Development of the Recorder.” (October 2003)
Powers, Wendy. “The Golden Harpsichord of Michele Todini (1616–1690).” (October 2003)
Powers, Wendy. “The Piano: The Pianofortes of Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655–1731).” (October 2003)
Powers, Wendy. “Violin Makers: Nicolò Amati (1596–1684) and Antonio Stradivari (1644–1737).” (October 2003)