About Early Keyboard Instruments

About our Harpsichords and Clavichords
(Early Keyboard Instruments : EKI)
(including spinets, virginals, square pianos and fortepianos)

Robert Morley & Company Limited house London's most comprehensive selection of early keyboard instruments.

A Tradition - The name Morley has been associated with music in London for century's even before Thomas Morley who was Queen Elizabeth's Master of Music and organist at St Paul's Cathedral. Robert Morley the younger son of the London piano maker Charles Morley, started his own company in 1881 to make and sell pianos. In 1955 Robert Morley's great grandson John started to make clavichords, spinets and harpsichords. Our craftsmen use specially selected top quality materials and traditional techniques and methods of construction that bring enjoyment to generations of musicians.

Robert Morley & Company Limited is a family run company which was established at Lewisham in 1881 and for more than sixty years the John Morley Clavichords, Spinets, Virginals and Harpsichords based on original 17th, 18th and 19th century instruments have been made under the direction of John Morley.

John Morley Instruments are built using traditional techniques and material including Bavarian Pine soundboards, English Beech bridges and wrest-planks combined with the highest quality of craftsmanship to produce the best quality touch and tone, which ensure the continuing success of John Morley Instruments.

soundboard roseA comprehensive selection of John Morley instruments new and made in previous years and restored to our current specification for the best touch and sound are available for immediate purchase together with original antique instruments of the 18th and 19th century including antique Erard harps of the mid to late 19th century and antique square pianos.

If you have a cherished or antique family instrument, consider a full restoration to bring it back to the best playing condition, should you wish to bring your instrument in for a no charge quote call and talk to us, transport can be arranged if required.

Talk to us also about long term home rental with the option to buy or our purchase options with interest free credit.

Selected Early keyboard instrument spare parts are available by mail order, please call for details.

John Morley double manual after KirkmannThe harpsichord for the music of Bach, Mozart, Scarlatti and Vivaldi.

The harpsichord is a keyboard instrument which unlike the piano has strings that are plucked by a plectra within a jack rather than struck by a hammer (felt covered). The spinet and virginal would be of the same family, but I am going to consider the harpsichord as the only plucked instrument which has its keyboard at 90 degrees to the longest side (spine).

Harpsichords can have one or more jacks to each key. Each jack will have one string to play. There can be one, two, three or even four sets of strings and either one or two sets of keys (single manual or double manual). English and French harpsichords are normally five octaves but the Italian and other early harpsichords frequently had a smaller compass.

Harpsichord close upModern instruments (harpsichords, spinets and virginals) mainly have delrin (plastic) plectra which provide a sound similar to traditional quill plectra (crow or raven quill) other original and contemporary instruments made in the 1950s onwards might have leather plectra however these do age and deteriorate, the expected useful life of leather plectra dependent on use and environment would be 15-25 years.

There will be either hand stops or pedals to move each row of jacks from off to on positions.

On a harpsichord the rows of strings can be at the same pitch or an octave higher or sometimes an octave lower (8ft, 4ft and 16 ft).

There may also be a hand stop or pedal to engage the harp/buff stop which is a soft leather or felt pad that mutes one of the sets of strings usually 8ft.

John Morley spinet chinnoiserieEnglish bent side spinet for the music of Handel and Madrigals

During the late 17th century and 18th century the English bent side or wing spinet became popular because they occupied a smaller space and were less expensive than the conventional harpsichord. They have jacks and quills plucking the strings the same as the larger instrument (harpsichord). They are normally five octaves in compass.

The spinets were diagonally strung with the long side of the instrument against the wall thus allowing it to fit into small spaces or alcoves, they were seen as the harpsichord for home.

John Morley virginal 4 octave walnutVirginals also known as Italian Spinets for the Baroque and Frescobaldi

Polygonal and rectangular in shape these instruments, known in England as Virginals because Queen Elizabeth I played one, date back to the 16th century and were diagonally strung with both bridges fixed to the soundboard with the plucking point going through the centre of the speaking length of the treble strings. This gives the instrument a very reedy sound. They are usually 4 octaves.

John Morley 5 octave clavichord mahogany inlaidClavichords the quiet home instrument of J S Bach, Mozart and Beethoven

In its own tiny world the sound it possesses provides quite a wide volume range. It provides a scope for expression not to be found on plucked instruments. The instrument does not have jacks which pluck the strings but metal tangents which strike the string from below. The final pitch is adjusted by the players fingers on the key a vibrato or bebung is obtained making the clavichord unique among keyboard instruments. Clavichords are small and rectangular in shape mostly four octaves or five octaves with a few three octaves. They were popular because of their quiet sound which made excellent personal practice instruments.

Fretted or unfretted : On fretted instruments some strings are sounded by pressing 2 or 3 different keys down with the tangent striking the same string at different points or positions along its length to give different pitches whereas on Fret Free or unfretted clavichords every key has its own separate or pair of strings to strike this allows any combination (harmony) of notes to be played at the same time which allows you to play any music up to the end of 18th century. All John Morley clavichords are unfretted as we feel this gives the best and most versatile instruments.

Square piano by Georgius Garcka c1783 mahoganySquare Pianos and Fortepianos for Beethoven, Haydn and Clementi

In the second half of the 18th century the development of the piano really started throughout Europe with both early forms of the grand piano (fortepiano) and the square piano. Although Cristofori and others had experimented in the first half of the 18th century, the harpsichord had remained as the number one keyboard instrument until then.

The Fortepiano was in effect a harpsichord with strings which were struck by leather covered hammers rather than being plucked with a quill plectra.

The development of the action mechanism took off at great pace and with the need for more volume the construction became more substantial and the strings thicker. The hammers became bigger, metal frames were added until it all developed in to the modern grand pianoforte.

Square pianos became very popular as they were more suitable for domestic use, smaller than the fortepiano, rectangular in shape with the keyboard running parallel to the longest side, from around 1770 London became a centre for makers from both this and many other countries throughout Europe to ply their trade.

Early square pianos and forte pianos would have a compass of approximately 5 octaves and would be piano like but softer. The touch in depth would be more like a harpsichord but smoother as you would not feel the plectra pluck the string through the key and it was of course much lighter than a modern piano.

As we get to the end of the 18th century the keyboard compass started to expand, the action movement became more refined and heavier.

Square pianos continued to be made through till the 1870-1880s until they were totally superseded by upright pianos.

Home Rental / Hire : For those not ready to buy an Early Keyboard Instrument we also offer an excellent selection of spinets, virginals, clavichords and occasionally some harpsichords on our rental / hire scheme for the home, this is for a minimum of six or twelve months, terms and conditions apply. The EKI rental / EKI hire agreement and forms must be completed on the Robert Morley & Co. Ltd. premises. We have been offering a home rental / hire scheme for you to try before you buy for over 40 years, this has enabled us to see how our instruments perform long term in the home environment and help you choose the best one for you. Terms and conditions apply.  Please ask for more details.