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NMM 5943.   Harpsichord by Nicolas Dufour, Paris, 1683
Ex coll.: Wolfgang Ruf, Rastatt, Germany
Rawlins Fund, 1996

By John Koster, Conservator & Professor of Music

NMM 5943.  Harpsichord by Nicolas Dufour, Paris, 1683.

Click on any image on this page to see an enlargement

Seventeenth-century French harpsichord making has remained less familiar than that of the eighteenth century. Although about thirty-five surviving examples are now known, they are rare outside France, and NMM 5943 is one of only four in American museums. In comparison with eighteenth-century French harpsichords, for example, NMM 3327, made by Jacques Germain, Paris, 1785, seventeenth-century instruments like NMM 5943 were generally more lightly constructed, with especially delicate keyboards and actions. NMM 5943 is of particular interest in having only a single keyboard:  most French harpsichords, whether from the seventeenth century or the eighteenth, have two manuals. Another interesting feature of NMM 5943 is its S-shaped bentside, also found in a few other seventeenth-century French instruments.

Nicolas Dufour is known only from the large printed paper label applied to the front of the wrest plank when work was done on the instrument in 1796:

Printed paper label naming Nicolas Dufour as maker


Presumably the first half of this was copied from the original maker’s inscription, which perhaps had become faint or was obliterated when the instrument was repaired by Honoré Grinda (as his name was usually spelled) in 1796. There is archival evidence of Claude Dufour, a harpsichord maker in Lyons, but none has yet been found of Nicolas Dufour in Paris. A harpsichord by "le sieur Dufour de Paris," however, was listed among the belongings of a prominent Parisian organist, Gabriel Garnier, in 1721. That NMM 5943 was indeed made in Paris is suggested by the painting on its soundboard, attributed to an anonymous artist who decorated several other instruments by known Parisian harpsichord makers in the 1660s and 1670s.

Plan view showing soundboard painting

Plan View

Keyboard and Disposition


The keyboard of NMM 5943 is in the typical seventeenth-century French style with ebony naturals, solid bone sharps, carved trefoil key fronts, and, originally, a compass of fifty notes, apparent BB (tuned to GG) to c3. There are two sets of 8' strings. Although the upper jack guides are eighteenth-century replacements and the jacks stem from a modern restoration, the plucking directions can be inferred from the original lower guide. The undercutting of the holes indicates that the jacks of the front register were inclined slightly to the left to provide adequate space for plectra plucking to the right; vice versa for the back register. Thus the disposition was:

< 8'
8' >

Carved Trefoil Key Fronts Viewed from Their Ends and Underside

Carved trefoil key fronts
Underside of carved trefoil key fronts

Lower guide seen in a mirror

The underside of the lower guide, seen in a mirror. The undercutting of the slots for the back row of jacks (above in this view) is greater towards the left, while the undercutting of the front row (below) is greater towards the right.

P is written near the treble end of the rear upper guide and S on the front guide, presumably for premier and second (or primo and secondo). There are plugged holes in the wrest plank for screws to hold a handstop at the left for the back register and one at the right for the front register. There was no buff stop.

Register ends with P and S

Case and Decoration

The cheek and bentside are walnut, a favored wood in seventeenth-century French cabinetry, and the exterior surfaces of these walls were presumably left unpainted. The instrument’s plain softwood spine, would have been unseen, facing the wall of the room. The present painted decoration on the outside of the instrument is a twentieth-century "enhancement," as are the lid and the painted cabriole-legged stand. Bands of flowers beautifully painted on paper applied to the interior walls around the soundboard, however, are original, as are the painted decoration of the soundboard and wrestplank, as well as the geometrical rose made of layers of carefully cut and punched parchment. At the upper edge of the case interior is a delicate applied walnut molding.

Bands of flowers

Flowers painted on paper and applied to interior walls around soundboard

Rose and soundboard painting

Geometrical rose made of layers of cut and punched parchment

Internal Structure

Soundboard removed

The instrument came to the NMM partly disassembled. With the soundboard no longer glued to the liners, it can be lifted out to reveal the internal structure. The original framing is unaltered, with only the long diagonal strut to the cheek/bentside corner an apparent later addition.

Interior detail


Underside of soundboard

Two of the original soundboard ribs, those nearest the front edge of the soundboard, remain in their original positions, and the positions of the other four, which were replaced during a restoration, can be determined by scars or other marks and by gaps in the pieces of linen tape that the maker glued to reinforce the joints between the planks from which the soundboard was assembled. There are now also four ribs in addition to the six in the original positions (original ribs highlighted in image below). The original ribs were cut out to free the soundboard where they passed under the bridge.

Underside of soundboard with original ribs indicated

Detail of a rib

Detail of the cutout in an original rib where it passes under the bridge. Faint pencil marks drawn by the maker show the position of the bridge and the approximate position of the rib. The linen tape reinforcing a soundboard joint can also be seen, discontinued where the rib was to be glued. The several strips of parchment and wooden cleats were added much later by restorers.

Ribs and underside of rose

Detail of the underside of the soundboard with the two original ribs and linen tape with which the maker reinforced a joint in the soundboard. He discontinued the tape where the ribs were to be glued. Other gaps in the tape show the positions of the missing original ribs.

Keyboard Modifications

Entire keyboard

The instrument has undergone a series of relatively minor alterations to extend and modify its compass. All but the first key (BB/GG) and f1-sharp of the original keyboard remain, with their limewood levers numbered from 2 to 50. The most likely sequence of alterations is that at some time before 1796, the compass underwent two stages of extension, first up to d3 in the treble, then down to AA in the bass, leaving the instrument with its present fifty-four note compass of AA to d3. In addition to alterations to the keyboard, the ends of the bridge and nut would have been extended to accomodate the added strings. The original lower guide was retained, with holes cut for the jacks added in the treble and bass. Two new upper guides, however, were made for the fifty-four note compass.

Bridge detail

Left: the bass end of the bridge, showing its cross section and molded front edge. In the foreground, the soundboard is brighter where the bridge had been extended for two notes added in the bass. The short addition to the bridge has not survived.

Key numbering

The inscription on the front edge of the wrest plank records further work on the instrument in 1796 by Honoré Grinda (1754-1843), a prominent organ builder in Nice. Grinda probably made the present c3-sharp and d3 keys, with pine levers, as he sometimes wrote the digit 5 in the distinctive manner seen on these levers, numbered 51 and 52 (above). Since the d3 lever has been filled in where there had once been a d3-sharp key, Grinda extended the compass at least up to e3 but almost certainly to f3. With a compass of fifty-four notes ending on f3, no keys below C would fit in the keywell. Grinda must have discarded the original GG/BB lever along with the previously added AA and BB-flat. With the compass of C to f3, the keys had to be moved to the left relative to their original positions, such that, for example, the c2 key played the strings originally intended for a1. Letters indicating the note names for this shifted compass are written near a few of the wrest pins, which remain staggered in the order of naturals and sharps for the original position of the keyboard. To compensate for the shifting of the keyboard a minor third lower, Grinda shortened all the strings by moving the nut closer to the bridge. Still, the scaling, with c2 about 396 mm long, was significantly longer than it had been, and the instrument must have been tuned to a very low pitch, approximately a1 = 380 hz.

Note names written by wrest pins

Note names written near the wrestpins to guide the tuner when the compass was C to f3, with the keyboard shifted a minor third from its original position. By the original wrestpin for a1 is C, then D by b1, E by c2-sharp, F by d2 (in front of a string gauge number, 10), and #F by e2-flat.

To the left of Grinda’s large printed label are the remains of a small handwritten label, the top line of which can be partially read as [Repa]ré par N . . . . This, in a handwriting similar but not identical to Grinda’s, may record some further work done within a decade or so after 1796. There are remains of glue evidently from a nut close to the back edge of the wrest plank. If this was from not an aborted attempt to add a 4' stop, it might have been from some attempt to shorten the strings so they could be tuned to a higher pitch.

Handwritten label

Keyboard removed from case

The present AA, BB-flat, and BB keys and the alterations to the keyframe to accomodate them are comparatively modern. They evidently stem from a twentieth-century restoration during which the former AA to d3 compass was reinstated, the keyboard was shifted back to its original position relative to the keys, and the nut was returned to its original position. The soundboard ribbing was probably altered at the same time, the exterior of the case was painted, and a new lid and stand provided.

Additional Construction Details and Measurements (in Millimeters)

Length:  2107
Width:  761 (at the lower edge), 767 over the wrestplank
Height:  246 to 251 (case walls 231 to 233 without the bottom board)
Three-octave measure:  464 at natural key fronts; 472 at the registers

The spine is of fir (Abies) 15 thick; cheek, 9 thick; and bentside, 8 thick, reduced to just over 7 near the tail, of walnut. The bottom, of fir, is attached to the bottom edges of the walls. It consists of a main board, 14 thick, with grain parallel to the spine, breadboarded to a transverse piece, 21 thick, under the front of the keyboard. The wrestplank is of oak; soundboard of quarter-sawed spruce (Picea); original ribs of spruce. The nut and bridge are of walnut, basically triangular in cross section, molded on the leading edge. The bridge is bent to its curve in both treble and bass.

String Lengths and Plucking Points
(all measurements in mm)


< 8'

8' >


Length / Plucking Point

Length / Plucking Point


176 / 66

165 / 41


352 / 84

336 / 58


710 / 104

676 / 79


1272 / 132

1235 / 106


1704 / 164

1695 / 139


1723 / —

Note: Many of the bridge and nut pins were moved slightly during the various stages of alteration and restoration. The present measurements were made to the positions judged most likely to be original. At some stage in the instrument’s history, the strings would have been a few millimeters longer because the bridge pins were about 3 mm closer to the spine. The plucking points are measured to the center of the jack slots in the present upper guides.

Literature:   Sheridan Germann, "Monsieur Doublet and His Confreres: The Harpsichord Decorators of Paris," pt. 2, Early Music, Vol. 9, No. 2 (April 1981), p. 192.

Michel Foussard and Jean-Loup Fontana, eds., Clans 1792, l’Orgue d’Honoré Grinda (Nice: Conseil Général des Alpes-Maritimes, 1982).

Dieter Krickeberg and Horst Rase, "Beitrage zur Kenntnis des mittel- und norddeutschen Cembalobaus um 1700," in Studia Organologica: Festschrift fur John Henry van der Meer, edited by Friedemann (Tutzing: Hans Schneider, 1987), p. 301.

Elisabeth Pastorelli, Orgues et facteurs de Nice (fin XVIIIe, début XXe siècle), (Béziers: Société de Musicologie de Languedoc, 1988).

John Koster, Keyboard Musical Instruments in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1994), p. 45, note 4.

Donald H. Boalch, Makers of the Harpsichord and Clavichord 1440-1840. Third edition, edited by Charles Mould (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1995), p. 300.

John Koster, "Rare French Harpsichord Enters Museum's Collections," Shrine to Music Museum Newsletter, Vol. 23, No. 4 (August 1996), pp. 1-3.

Alain and Marie-Christine Anselm, "La Collection Yannick Guillou," Musique, Images, Instruments (Revue francaise d'organologie et d'iconographie musicale), No. 2 (1996), pp. 147-148, note 42.

Alain and Marie-Christine Anselm, "Petit prelude a l'etude des clavecins francais du XVIIe siecle," Musique, Images, Instruments (Revue francaise d'organologie et d'iconographie musicale), No. 2 (1996), p. 228.

Denzil Wraight, The Stringing of Italian Keyboard Instruments c.1500-c.1650 (Ph.D. thesis, The Queen’s University of Belfast, 1996; revised 1997), vol. 1, p. 179.

Alain and Marie-Christine Anselm, "Le deux clavecins signés 'J. Collesse', 1768 et 1775," Musique, Images, Instruments (Revue francaise d'organologie et d'iconographie musicale), No. 4 (1999), p. 84, note 16.

R. Dean Anderson, "Extant Harpsichords Built or Rebuilt in France During the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: an Overview and Annotated List, Part 1," Early Keyboard Journal 19 (2001), pp. 137-138.

John Koster, "Traditional Iberian Harpsichord Making in its European Context," Galpin Society Journal 61 (2008), pp. 10, 58, 67.

Charles Astro, Robert Adelson, et al., Trois siècles de facture instrumentale à Nice, exhibition catalogue, Musée du Palais Lascaris (Nice: Éditions Nice Musées, 2009), p. 21.

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 fig. 4).

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