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A 1751 clavicytherium by Flemish harpsichord maker Albert Delin, from the collection of the Musical Instrument Museum in Brussels, Belgium

From Late Latin clavicytherium, from Medieval Latin clāvis (key) (ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *(s)kleh₂w- (crook, hook, peg), possibly through Ancient Greek κλείς (kleís, bar, bolt; key)) + cithara (cithara, guitar, lute, lyre) (from Ancient Greek κῐθᾰ́ρᾱ (kithárā, lyre)) + -ium (suffix forming nouns).[1]



clavicytherium (plural clavicytheriums or clavicytheria)

  1. (music) A harpsichord in which the soundboard and strings are mounted vertically facing the player. [early 16th c.]
    • 1776, John Hawkins, “Preliminary Discourse”, in A General History of the Science and Practice of Music, [...] In Five Volumes, volume I, London: Printed for T[homas] Payne and Son, at the Mews-Gate, OCLC 606112609, page xiv:
      [T]he harpſichord is an improvement of the Clavicitherium, an inſtrument known in England in Gower's time by the name of the Citole, from Cistella, a little cheſt.
    • 1827 January, Fetis [i.e., François-Joseph Fétis], “Improvement in the Construction of Pianos. From the Revue Musicale”, in The Harmonicon, a Journal of Music, volume V, London: Printed for the proprietors, published by Samuel Leigh, No. 18, Strand, OCLC 265671999, page 158, column 1:
      When we consider the state of imperfection in which all keyed instruments, the organ excepted, remained till within these few years past, we can scarcely bring ourselves to believe tha instruments analogous to them were in use as far back as 1530. Yet such was the case: four instruments of this kind were then employed, the compass of which was three octaves and a half. They were—1st, the Clavicitherium, which was mounted with catgut-strings, and sounded by means of a jack put in motion by the touch: []
    • 1860, Edward F[rancis] Rimbault, “The First Instruments of the Pianoforte Class”, in The Pianoforte, Its Origin, Progress, and Construction; with Some Account of Instruments of the Same Class which Preceded It; viz. the Clavichord, the Virginal, the Spinet, the Harpsichord, etc. To which is Added a Selection of Interesting Specimens of Music Composed for Keyed-stringed Instruments. [...], London: Robert Cocks and Co. New Burlington Street, Regent Street, W. music publishers to Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria, and His Imperial Majesty Napoleon III, OCLC 667875530, page 28:
      The first stringed instrument to which the key-board was applied, was probably the clavicytherium, or keyed-cithara. In its early stage, it was a small oblong box, with the strings arranged in the form of a half-triangle. The strings, which were of catgut, were sounded by means of quill-plectra, attached in a rude way to the ends of the keys.
    • 1867 July, “The Piano in the United States”, in The Atlantic Monthly. A Magazine of Literature, Science, Art, and Politics, volume XX, number CXVII, Boston, Mass.: Ticknor and Fields, 124 Tremont Street, OCLC 612185692, page 86, column 1:
      [W]e find indications of a keyed instrument after the year 1300, called the Clavicytherium, or keyed cithara. The invention of keys permitted the strings to be covered over, and therefore the strings of the clavicytherium were enclosed in a box, instead of being stretched on a box. [] The clavicytherium was usually a very small instrument,—an oblong box, three or four feet in length, that could be lifted by a girl of fourteen. The clavichord and manichord, which we read of in [Wolfgang Amadeus] Mozart's letters, were only improved and better-made clavicytheria.
    • 1872, Horace Greeley [et al.], “Piano-fortes”, in The Great Industries of the United States: Being an Historical Summary of the Origin, Growth, and Perfection of the Chief Industrial Arts of This Country, Hartford, Conn.: J. B. Burr & Hyde; Chicago, Ill.; Cincinnati, Oh.: J. B. Burr, Hyde & Co., OCLC 476466327, page 275:
      The writer referred to [Edward Francis Rimbault] traces the instrument from the ancient lyre, through various mechanical phases, the harp, psaltery, dulcimer, etc. to the clavicitherium—a name compounded from the Latin clavis, a key, and cithera, the name of an ancient instrument of music, which consisted of strings drawn over a sounding wooden surface or bottom, and not unlike the modern guitar. The clavicitherium was an oblong box, containing a number of strings arranged in a triangular form, and which were struck by a plectrum—a little mallet, commonly made of ivory, with which the ancients beat the strings of the lyre.
    • 1978, Edward L[eon] Kottick, “A Short History of the Harpsichord”, in The Harpsichord Owner’s Guide: A Manual for Buyers and Owners, Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, published 1992, ↑ISBN, page 34, column 3:
      Clavicytheria, or upright harpsichords, were also made in Italy. Although they probably were built almost everywhere, the evidence of the extant instruments indicates that they were more common here than elsewhere. Playing a clavicytherium is a sensual experience: the soundboard is directly in front and the sound is projected right at the player.
    • 2007, Frederick Hammond, “Delin, Albert (1712–1771)”, in Igor Kipnis, editor, The Harpsichord and Clavichord: An Encyclopedia (Encyclopedia of Keyboard Instruments; 2), New York, N.Y.; Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge, ↑ISBN, page 147, column 1:
      However, [Albert] Delin's originality is manifested from the start through his building of clavicytheriums, in which the mechanism is an innovation; it appears that he was trying to distinguish himself from the other makers of the eighteenth century in the Low Countries.

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  1. ^ clavicytherium” in Unabridged,, LLC, 1995–present; “clavicytherium” in Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Online.

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