William Mitchell

Harpsichords

Franco-Flemish Harpsichord
Franco-Flemish Harpsichord
Franco-Flemish Harpsichord
Franco-Flemish Harpsichord
Franco-Flemish Harpsichord

FRANCO-FLEMISH HARPSICHORDS after RUCKERS-HEMSCH 1636/1763

When I first started making harpsichords in the early 1970s I was looking for an instrument to copy that would allow players to perform the entire repertoire from very early times through to the end of the Baroque era and for the music from any part of that two hundred and fifty year period to sound good. Tonally it had to be an instrument with a very clear attack of harmonics - something with a strong fundamental, but plenty of upper partials to provide a clear percussion when each jack is fired, then a long sustaining sound to follow.

The Italians were probably one of the earliest makers of harpsichords, spinets and virginals in Europe - witness one of the earliest known surviving harpsichords, the Hieronymus Bononiensis (Jerome of Bologna) dated 1521 in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London and the pentagonal spinet dated 1523 referred to in Frank Hubbard’s Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making. The Italian sound is suitable as a continuo instrument of great clarity and for the period work for which it was intended and, indeed, many of their instruments were imported by the Elizabethans for use in performing the music of that time, but the short scaling and thin stringing of Italian harpsichords provided a tone which, while beginning with a marked attack, decays very rapidly and would be too short-lived, brittle in the treble and hard in the bass for the late Baroque compositions.

I had to look further north for the most appropriate tone and this came in the shape of one of the Franco-Flemish harpsichords found in Paris towards the middle and second half of the eighteenth century.

The great Flemish tradition started in Antwerp around the beginning of the sixteenth century and gave rise to perhaps the most celebrated of all makers, the Ruckers family. The construction of their harpsichords was more robust than the Italians with longer scales which produced a tone in which the initial energy imparted to the string by the pluck is not drained off so quickly.
The sound begins with an ictus of approximately one-third of a second and attenuates more slowly, providing a general effect of greater smoothness. The bass has a drum-like resonance which produces a sensation of great nobility and power. The best Ruckers tone has enough individuality to be interesting but does not impose its characteristic upon the performer.

Very few modern harpsichords, that is to say, harpsichords designed in the twentieth century, approach the Ruckers in freedom of sound production and interest of harmonic development. In comparison to a Ruckers, modern harpsichords are likely to have a weak, wiry sound much like that produced by a Ruckers when a heavy mass is permitted to rest on the bridge near the string being sounded.

The Ruckers was certainly the most sought-after harpsichord by the aristocracy and their composers. According to the Dictionnaire des Arts et Métiers under the section ‘Characteristics of a good harpsichord’ (1785)…
‘ the best harpsichords for beautiful tone are those of the Ruckers and Jean Couchet (a nephew of Hans II Ruckers) all established at Antwerp in the last two centuries, who made an immense quantity of harpsichords, a large number of original examples of which are in Paris, recognised as such by true connoisseurs’.

The only problem was that many of these originals were rather limited in scope: they were usually of just a single keyboard with a compass of only four octaves or just over. They were fine in the main for continuo work and pieces composed specifically for an instrument with such a range, but in order to perform the great solo works of the Baroque and Classical period a wider compass was required.

The French connection comes in the form of a solution to this problem by what was called in the eighteenth century clavecins à grand ravalement - the extension of a small instrument with limited keyboard range to a larger one by way of a re-build. This ravalement resulted in a compass of a full five octaves, often with the addition of another keyboard, to result in a double manual harpsichord and meant that the tone of the instrument was preserved, yet its scope greatly enhanced.

The harpsichord I chose to copy was such an instrument. It was built originally in 1636 by Andreas Ruckers the Younger and then extended in 1763 by the Parisian maker Henri Hemsch by order of the Countess of Savoy. It was one of the instruments in the collection of my teacher, Michael Thomas of Hurley Manor, Henley-on-Thames. Today this harpsichord is to be found in a collection housed in National Trust property at Hatchlands, Surrey.

During the ravalement little, if anything, was discarded. The cheek was certainly taken off and so was the straight side, but after slight additions to widen it to put on two or three extra notes, they were put back again so the whole of the middle of the harpsichord is untouched Ruckers: the bridge, the soundboard even the struts and bars are all original and unaltered so it is as near a Ruckers as it possibly can be. Monsieur Hemsch obviously worked with great sensitivity.

It was a marvellous opportunity to have direct access to this instrument. Not only did Michael give me a wonderful training into how to obtain the best tone, he permitted me to place the newly made harpsichords side by side the original and thus compare the sound. This access and chance to make a direct comparison would be almost impossible in any of the major museums and collections.

Home Page
Harpsichords currently available
 

Home Page