Though far from being the only historical instrument to receive renewed attention during the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century, the harpsichord holds a special place in the history of the early music revival. No other instrument played as visible—or, perhaps, as controversial—a role in popularizing musical activities during the revival. As a large and visually distinctive presence, the harpsichord has a tendency to garner attention wherever it appears, whether in a museum case or on the concert hall stage. In this article I explore the harpsichord’s nineteenth-century “death” and its subsequent revival—the two periods of its history that have been most neglected. By reexamining the ways in which the harpsichord was portrayed in both words and images, I show that the instrument’s eventual acceptance in the twentieth century was far from being a fait accompli but depended largely on an extensive and deliberate renegotiation of both its image and its cultural identity.
In the first half of the article I explore the harpsichord’s nineteenth-century existence as an evocative emblem of a vanished past: an instrument turned relic that was frequently laden with supernatural literary tropes and ghostly imagery. In the second section I examine the instrument’s revival, focusing on the ways in which the harpsichord was brought before modern audiences, ultimately in a form that was heavily reengineered and reconfigured. Indeed, in its journey from museum piece to modern musical instrument the harpsichord underwent a marked transformation of both form and character. The process involved a gradual rejection of much of the cultural baggage the harpsichord had accrued during its long dormancy in the nineteenth century and resulted in a transformation that ultimately won it a place in the modern musical world.