In Black and White [3]

Early Keyboards

[Hydraulis, Organ and Clavichord]

by Andrew G Lockhart


The hydraulis was invented in Alexandria by a talented engineer called Ctesibius, probably an Egyptian. However, at the time, Alexandria was a Greek city, the centre of Hellenic learning and culture, and whatever the inventor’s nationality, the organ is claimed as a Greek invention. By the first century CE, it had spread across the Greek and Roman world. Some instruments employed bellows instead of a hydraulic pump, which was the norm.

The instrument was popular in Rome at the height of empire, was played in the theatres of the day and was possibly used even in the Colosseum as an accompaniment to the ‘entertainment’. The hydraulis was depicted on stone carvings and on coinage, and was described in the works of several Roman writers, including Cicero. Some historians have suggested the emperor Nero might have played one, rather than a lyre, as Rome burned – that is, assuming he was playing an instrument of any kind!

In the fifth century, the hydraulis disappeared from the Western Empire, perhaps as a result of the barbarian sack of Rome. Another explanation may have been its association with pagan rituals, which caused over-zealous Roman Church leaders to ban its use among their followers. If there is any truth in the latter suggestion, the Hellenes were more open-minded. The hydraulis continued to thrive under the Eastern emperors in Byzantium, where the bellows system eventually replaced the hydraulic altogether.

In 757CE, the emperor Constantine sent a hydraulis as a gift to the Frankish King Peppin, father of Charlemagne. The instrument was much admired and imitated. Whatever its earlier reservations, if any, the Catholic Church then adopted it wholeheartedly. Thus began an association with Christian worship which has so far lasted twelve hundred and fifty years.

Certainly, organs have gone through a process of evolution that has included many mechanisms and a variety of keyboard types. Some would have been unlike anything we know today.  The early examples would have been limited in range, probably no more than an octave or so, and the ‘keys’ may have been slider bars, or even knobs that had to be turned rather than depressed. However, the instrument’s history came full circle in 1992 when a Greek archaeological expedition discovered the remains of a two-thousand-year-old hydraulis at Dion, near Mount Olympus. This machine stood over two metres high and consisted of several bronze pipes of equal diameter, a short keyboard and a water-operated pump. It has been reconstructed by the European Cultural Centre at Delphi.

Readers can read and listen to more information about this fascinating instrument at the archaeology channel


When the forerunner of the harpsichord appeared in Europe in the fourteenth century, the organ was already well established as the instrument of the church. Ctesibius had developed his hydraulis in an effort to create an instrument capable of producing note harmonies and, in so doing, had achieved something that was impossible on the pan pipes or flute. Now the monochord and its zither relatives were to undergo a similar transformation. Like the hydraulis, its stringed equivalent would be built upwards. ** Moreover, the principle on which the keys were attached, namely high notes on the right side and low notes on the left, would be the same.

The earliest known keyboard with strings was a small, portable instrument with the rather cumbersome name of clavicytherium . Encyclopaedia Britannica describes it as a type of vertically strung harpsichord, though the first examples were probably no more than psalteries or zithers with keys attached. It was a hundred years or more before the instrument took on a recognisable form. The true clavicytherium as it is known and researched today is a horizontal keyboard of three or four octaves supported either on legs or a solid base. The strings and soundboard lie perpendicular to the keys. Instruments from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries can be found in European and American museums such as the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna or the Metropolitan Museum of New York. The oldest surviving clavicytherium, from around 1450, is held at the Royal College of Music, London.

An instrument with an equally long and distinguished history appeared in the early fifteenth century. This was the clavichord, which assumes some importance in the history and development of the pianoforte as the first instrument to employ a striking rather than plucking action. Also deriving from the monochord, it was, unlike the clavicytherium, rectangular in shape, with the strings running from left to right the length of the keyboard. The soundboard was set on the right.

The clavichord was an important step in the history of the piano’s development, due to both their kinship and their rivalry. Some of its features will be the subject of a later article.


** Think “harp” and see hydraulis pictures at



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