The Clavisimbalum of Henri Arnaut de Zwolle

The Clavisimbalum or Clavicymbalum might be described as an ‘early' early keyboard instrument. It is drawn and described by Henri Arnaut de Zwolle in his manuscript of c1440 (Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale, MS. latin 7295) and shows a series of mechanisms quite different to the jacks and registers that we are familiar with today. The manuscript, which is amongst the earliest known references to what may be termed a harpsichord, details five, "devices for attacking the strings". However in his description of the instrument Arnaut is clearly talking about the first mechanism, "the first and best" as he says.

For my reconstruction I have used the device that Arnaut apparently favoured. The forpex, as he calls it, is a narrow mechanism with a pivoted pusher rod and incorporates a hook for attachment to the instrument. The plucking section is similar to the arrangement found on the conventional jack with tongue, plectrum and spring. My interpretation of it is shown in the picture below.


There is iconographical evidence to suggest that these instruments were also fitted with the more recognisable type of jack mechanism which probably supplanted the forpex before the end of the fifteenth century. This version can be provided if preferred and offers greater ease of access for regulation. Both types of plucking mechanism are illustrated below.




The Clavisimbalum has a compass of 35 notes chromatic from B - a" and is strung with brass and iron un-damped. It has a clear voice, crisp and bright with plenty of volume. The sound has been likened by one observer to the clarsach, an early type of harp.


Shown right is the plate from the manuscript describing the Clavisimbalum. Details of the first devise can be seen at the top of the plate.

Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale, ms. lat. 7295

For a detailed description of my reconstruction of the Clavisimbalum see

The Clavisimbalum is available in a natural finish or can be embellished with pierced roses and painted decoration.

Hear the Clavisimbalum played by Satono Norizuki
Also here

Compass: B - a" Strung with brass and Iron
Pitch: a' = 554Hz. (4th above a' = 415Hz)
Dimensions: Length 920mm, Width 555mm, Height 147mm.
Weight: Instrument: 6.5kg.   Hard case: 6.0kg.

A hard travelling case is available for this instrument.
Made by: Kingham MTM Cases Ltd.