From Hauntings to Historicity: The Harpsichord in the Nineteenth Century
The 19th-century was undoubtedly a period of dormancy for the harpsichord—a time when it rarely appeared before the musical public. Though largely unheard, the instrument was not forgotten: it persisted as a cultural artifact, surviving in museum displays, contemporary iconography, and in often-fanciful fictional accounts. In this paper I explore the harpsichord’s 19th-century existence as an evocative emblem of a vanished past: an instrument-turned-relic that was frequently adorned with supernatural literary tropes and ghostly imagery. I conclude with a brief discussion of some of the ways in which the potent associations that formed during the harpsichord’s quiescence helped to shape the early 20th-century revival and, arguably, remain a part of its legacy even today.
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Edmond Johnson is the Director of Academic Advising and Coordinator of the Core Program in Liberal Arts at Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he also teaches courses in Music History and Cultural Studies. He received his PhD in musicology from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2011. He has contributed several articles on musical instruments to Oxford Music Online and his article “The Death and Second Life of the Harpsichord” (Journal of Musicology) was awarded the 2015 Frances Densmore Prize by the American Musical Instrument Society. In addition to his work on the harpsichord and the early music revival, he is interested in the broader study of musical instruments and their intersecting social, cultural, and technological histories.