Technical Library

ACTION X: Stagger

Entire Contents Copyright © 2020 CBH
Next 1K gifBack 1K gif

Consistent plucking order from note to note is crucial for the correct operation and feel of the harpsichord. If the multiple plucks of an instrument with more than two registers tried to occur simultaneously, each key would be more far difficult than necessary to depress. Makers intentionally separate the plucks as part of the regulation process on a new instruments. In English, we use the wonderful word “stagger” to describe this—a word more often applied to the walk of a drunk.

The stagger depends on the instrument. The following is regarded as normal practice:

After the last pluck, a little keydip must remain for comfort. At normal playing speed, the separation of the various plucks is not audible.

The stagger is largely determined by the mechanics of the instrument without any special imposition from the maker or technician. It’s clear that the rear of the key rises in an arc when the note is played. Therefore, you would expect a choir closest to the player to speak last. The relatively lightly plucking 4⁠´ tends to want to pluck first, even though the back 8⁠´ jacks are raised first, being closer to the rear of the key. If everything is right, the harpsichord will stagger itself: That means having uniform jack to string spacing, consistent quill length, even voicing, and the jacks the right length to have uniform lost motion above the quills within each choir before they contact the string. Voila!

The first movie below clearly shows tenor f on the lower manual of a French Double being played slowly. The jackrail has been removed so the three choirs of jacks are clearly visible. The second movie demonstrates the stagger on a typical revival-style Neupert Bach model harpsichord.

Movie thumb 3K jpeg Movie 1K gif Stagger
Carey Beebe demonstrating the timing of the pluck (“stagger”).
YouTube logo 2K gif
Movie thumb 3K jpeg Movie 1K gif Stagger II — Neupert “Bach” model
Carey Beebe demonstrating stagger on a restored Neupert “Bach” model harpsichord in Seoul.
YouTube logo 2K gif

Assuming the action of the harpsichord was accurately setup when new—which sadly isn’t always the case(!)—stagger can be upset in several ways:

Alternate stagger possibilities
While the above-mentioned norms are the way the stagger is set on most instruments, there are other possibilities. Some makers today use a different order for their stagger. This variation from the norm can find favor with some players, but is it because there is a legitmate benefit to varying the simple mechanical expectation, or just because it is different?

In his examination of the 1733 Blanchet at Château de Thoiry, William Dowd noted with interest the radically short 4⁠´ jacks, forcing a plucking order which was possibly unchanged since new as “uniformly and evenly lower 8⁠´ first, then upper 8⁠´, and 4⁠´ last.” However, he continues, “It must be noted that the discovery of one instrument with a plucking order regulated in this way does not prove it to have been a common practice of the eighteenth century.”

As a result, a few Dowd instruments from 1973 and 1974 were setup in that manner with the 4⁠´ plucking last. Many more Dowds after 1974 timed the 4⁠´ in the middle of the unison plucks, and this was also commonplace in Paris Dowds from the Von Nagel workshop for a period.

Another Boston maker, Eric Herz, recognized that the back 8⁠´ should pluck before the front 8⁠´ in an instrument with two unison choirs. He also generally timed his 4⁠´ to pluck in the middle of the unisons. On a large instrument with 16⁠´, he wanted that staggered back 8⁠´, 4⁠´, 16⁠´ and finally front 8⁠´.

Frank Hubbard expected single-manual harpsichords to normally pluck 4⁠´, then the front 8⁠´ before the back 8⁠´; double-manual harpsichords to pluck in the usual order 4⁠´, back 8⁠´ & front 8⁠´; and a 16⁠´ if any should pluck last. It’s nice he noted “one should not be doctrinaire about plucking order. If the instrument insists on some other order, follow that preference but be sure that all notes pluck in the same order.”

For an aspect of regulation that is so important, there is no mention of stagger in Hanns Neupert’s How to Maintain a Modern Harpsichord (excerpted from his Harpsichord Manual — A historical and technical discussion). Indeed, I believe many revival-type Neuperts—particularly singles with two unison choirs—left the factory with both choirs plucking at the same instant in an effort for more expansive tone.

Another revival harpsichord maker William de Blaise wisely noted, “It is inadvisable to make all the stops pluck at precisely the same instant, as this would make the touch unduly heavy.” He specifies the upper manual 4⁠´ to pluck before the front 8⁠´, and the lower manual 16⁠´ to pluck before the back 8⁠´. But there is no mention of the exact order when the keyboards are coupled and all four choirs expected to play.

An example of a special historical case might be the interesting three-register 1679 Couchet. Like most seventeenth-century Flemish instruments, it is strung with a unison and an octave choir, but unusually has the 4⁠´ register separating two unison registers. This gives the tonal possibility of the single unison string actually being excited simultaneously at two points by both back 8⁠´ and front 8⁠´ jacks. In this instance, the stagger must be set so both pluck at once, otherwise the string will be fouled by the second plucking attempt.

Something similar occurs on normal late eighteenth-century English doubles like the 1775 Kirckman, where it is possible on the upper keyboard to engage both the close-plucking lute register and the dogleg at once. As both registers play the same unison string, again, both registers must be staggered together for successful operation during that choice of registration. However, Herz noted that any nasal register should “pluck near the top of the key motion without any relationship to any of the other registers.”

It would seem almost anything goes.

Further discussion
de Blaise, William Harpsichords —  Maintenance Manual Whelpdale, Maxell & Codd Ltd, London ND, p18
Dowd, William A Short Maintenance Manual for William Dowd Harpsichords Dowd, Boston 1981, p17
Dowd, William “The surviving instruments of the Blanchet workshop” in The Historical Harpsichord vol1, Pendragon Press, Hillsdale NY 1984
Herz, Eric Maintenance and Tuning of Harpsichords Herz, Boston 1986, p8
Hubbard, Frank Harpsichord Regulating and Repairing Tuners Supply Inc, Boston 1963, p23
Kottick, Edward L The Harpsichord Owner’s Guide University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 1987, p120

Action index:

CBH Icon 1K gif Technical Library overview
CBH Icon 1K gif Harpsichords Australia Home Page