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Harpsichord by José Calisto, Portugal, 1780

NMM 6204.  Harpsichord by Jose Calisto, Portugal, 1780

NMM 6204. Harpsichord by José Calisto, Portugal, 1780. Single manual, GG-g3 (5 octaves); 2 x 8'; buff. Ex coll.: Wolfgang Ruf, Emmetten, Switzerland. Rawlins fund, 1999.

The robust case, made mainly of spruce, is painted dark green on the exterior and veneered with Brazilian tulipwood on the interior. The original music desk is mostly of rosewood (palisander), as are the moldings and blocks around the keyboard. The instrument rests on typically Portuguese trestles with cutouts in the shape of upside-down hearts.


Jose Calisto's signature

This harpsichord, inscribed JOZE CALISTO 1780, is one of the rarest treasures in the collections of the National Music Museum. Although nothing is yet known about Calisto, this wonderfully preserved instrument, typically Portuguese in its design and decorative style incorporating fine tropical woods, displays craftsmanship of the highest order. The single manual, with boxwood-covered naturals and ebony-covered sharps (see image below), has the common eighteenth-century Iberian five-octave compass of GG to g3 (61 notes). There are two registers at 8' pitch, one of which is permanently engaged, while the other is controlled by a hand stop. A second hand stop controls a buff stop affecting the permanent 8'.


Detail of Boxwood and Ebony-Covered Keys

Keyboard close-up


Audio Excerpt

Rosana Lanzelotte poses with the Calisto harpsichord at the NMM

Click on link to hear an excerpt of Pedro António Avondano's (1714-1782), Sonata in Fa Major. From the CD, Pedro António Avondano Sonatas, played by Rosanna Lanzelotte (left).


Disposition and Measurements

The instrument is scaled (c2 being 256 mm long) for brass strings with the speaking lengths doubling at each lower octave throughout most of the compass. This accounts for the imposing size of the harpsichord, which is 2516 mm long, almost the length of a modern concert grand piano. The tone is full and rich, with a particularly majestic bass. Although the string scaling is similar to that of harpsichords and pianos made in Florence by Bartolomeo Cristofori, which were certainly known in Portugal, the overall construction of the Calisto instrument and most details of its action and soundboard layout are closer to those of northern-European harpsichords.

<8' controlled by a hand lever
8'> permanently engaged
buff to 8'> controlled by a hand lever
Length of spine (without bracket at front) 2516 mm
Width (measured over nameboard) 955 mm
Length of cheekpiece (without bracket) 646 mm
Length of tail 250 mm
Tail angle 88.5°
Height (including bottom, which is applied to the bottom edges of the walls) 227 mm
Three-octave span 493 mm

8' String Lengths and Plucking Points

  <8' string length <8' plucking point
g3 84 mm 46 mm
c3 131  —
c2 256 86
c1 503 110
c 987  —
C 1802  —
GG 2009 173



Plan view and X-Ray

Plan view
X-ray of plan view



Literature:   Donald H. Boalch, Makers of the Harpsichord and Clavichord 1440-1840. Third edition, edited by Charles Mould (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), pp. 263-264.

Anne Robert, Carlos Seixas, Sonates pour Clavecin (Vol. II) (France: Optical Disc de France, 1997). CD.

John Koster, "A Rare Portugese Harpsichord by José Calisto, 1780," America's Shrine to Music Museum Newsletter 26, No. 3 (August 1999), pp. 4-5.

John Koster, "Towards an Optimal Instrument:  Domenico Scarlatti and the New Wave of Iberian Harpsichord Making," Early Music 35, No. 4 (November 2007), pp. 575-604.

John Koster, "Traditional Iberian Harpsichord Making in its European Context," Galpin Society Journal 61 (2008), pp. 8, 9, 13, 62.

John Koster, "Domenico Scarlatti and the Transformation of Iberian Harpsichord Making," in Domenico Scarlatti en España / Domenico Scarlatti in Spain, Luisa Morales, ed. (Garrucha, Almería, Spain: Asociación Cultural LEAL, 2009), pp. 187-208 (especially pp. 200, and 204-206 and figs. 1b, 3c, 11, 12, and 14).

John Koster, "Scarlatti and His Keyboards," Early Music 37, No. 2 (May 2009), pp. 345-346.

Ronald Broude, "Playing On Originals: The Material Presence of the Past," Early Music America 15, No. 4 (Winter 2009): 35.

Susanne Skyrm, ed., with assistance from Calvert Johnston and John Koster, Anthology of Eighteenth-Century Spanish Keyboard Music for Organ, Piano, Harpsichord, or Clavichord (Colfax, North Carolina: Wayne Leupold Editions, 2010), p. x.

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