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NMM 10000.    Harpsichord by Andreas Ruckers, Antwerp, 1643.
Ex coll.: Sheridan Germann, Boston.
Margaret L. Sletwold Estate and Arne B. and Jeanne F. Larson Fund, 2000.

NMM 10000.  Harpsichord by Andreas Ruckers, Antwerp, 1643.

The Ruckers dynasty was founded by Hans Ruckers (ca. 1550-1598), who joined Antwerp's Guild of St. Luke as a master harpsichord maker in 1579. Two of his eleven children, Joannes (1578-1642) and Andreas (b. August 1579; died between June 1651 and March 1653), entered the profession. They worked together until Andreas established his own workshop about 1605. Later generations of harpsichord makers in the family include Andreas's son, also named Andreas (1607-1654/1655); Joannes's nephew and successor, Joannes Couchet (1615-1655); and, his son, Joseph Joannes Couchet (1652-1706). They are known to have exported instruments to Holland, Germany, France, England, Spain, and even Colombia and Peru. Their work, much in demand, was widely imitated; and, as early as 1688, Michel Richard, a prominent Parisian maker, passed off one of his Ruckers-inspired harpsichords as an original.

The Harpsichord's Nineteenth-century Redecoration

Three-quarter view Front view Side view

Click on images above to see larger images.

Although, by the beginning of the 19th century, harpsichords went out of fashion as instruments for contemporary music making, they soon were collected as aristocratic pieces of furniture reminiscent of the glories of the past. The plain painted surfaces of harpsichords like the 1643 Ruckers were deemed insufficiently ornate for the pseudo-historical fantasies of 19th-century interior decoration, so its exterior surfaces and the area around the keyboard were redecorated with elaborate borders, vignettes, and garlands on a gold ground. A flamboyant gilt carved stand was also provided. Anachronistic though this redecoration may be, it was responsible for the preservation of the harpsichord until it could again be appreciated as a musical instrument.

Keyboards and Action

There were two standard models of Ruckers harpsichords. Now that the NMM's single-manual harpsichord by Andreas Ruckers, 1607 has been joined by the two-manual instrument made by the same maker in 1643, the NMM is one of only a handful of places in the world—the only place outside of Europe—to have an example of both kinds. Unlike the later, two-manual harpsichords of the Baroque and Classical periods—such as the NMM's examples by Jacques Germain, Paris, 1785 (NMM 3327, Rawlins Fund), on display in the Arne B. Larson Concert Hall, and Joseph Kirckman, London, 1798 (NMM 3328, Rawlins Fund), in the Pressler Gallery—in which the two keyboards could be played simultaneously or in rapid alternation, Ruckers "doubles" were intended to facilitate the transposition often necessary in performing Renaissance music, so the two keyboards were a fourth apart in pitch and could only be used separately.

Original configuration of Ruckers' keyboards on two-manual harpsichords
Designed for convenient transposing, the original keyboards of Ruckers two-manual harpsichords were a fourth apart in pitch.

Ruckers harpsichords, while ideally suited to the music of their own time and region, were small by later standards, and the transposing keyboards of the two-manual instruments became obsolete not long after this model ceased to be made in the mid-1640s. Just as Stradivari violins used today have been modified from their original specifications to meet modern musical demands, Ruckers harpsichords, prized for their superb tone, were rebuilt ever more radically as the standard keyboard compass was gradually expanded from the four octaves of the Ruckers' day to five octaves in the latter half of the 18th century.

In 18th-century France, Diderot and d'Alembert's Encyclopédie noted that harpsichords by the three Ruckers and Couchet, such as they left the hands of these masters, have become absolutely unusable today, because these skillful artists, whose understanding of the harmonic aspects was quite superior, did very badly on the part of the keyboard. Moreover, these Flemish harpsichords are so small that the pieces or sonatas composed today cannot be played on them, which is why they are rebuilt . . . A harpsichord by Ruckers or Couchet, artistically cut and enlarged, with jacks, registers, and keyboards by skillful modern makers such as Blanchet [or] Paschal [Taskin], has become an infinitely precious instrument.

The NMM's Ruckers double underwent just such a process. About two inches (5 cm) were added to its width in the treble, and the wrestplank and the action were replaced. To judge from details of the workmanship, this was probably done in the 1730s or 40s by the Parisian maker, Antoine Vater, or his eminent pupil, Henri Hemsch. Thus, in its musical resources, it became a normal 18th-century French harpsichord with two GG-to-e3 keyboards and the standard disposition of 8' and 4' stops on the lower manual, 8' on the upper, a buff stop to one of the 8' choirs, and a shove coupler.

Replacement Keyboards Made in the 18th Century

Click on images below to see larger images.

Close-up of two keyboards
Close-up of bottom keyboard

Upper and lower keyboards together

Lower keyboard

Side view of action
Coupler Engaged

Side view of action with shove coupler disengaged.

Shove coupler engaged.

When Ruckers harpsichords were rebuilt in France, they were usually redecorated to suit current fashion. Remaining from this time is the brilliant vermilion name batten, made to replace the original, when it became too short during the instrument's enlargement.

Front view of keyboards

Click on nameboard or keyboards (above) or key fronts (below) to see larger images.

Front view of keyboards

Soundboard Decoration

The beautifully preserved decoration on the soundboard was painted by the anonymous artist whose work is found only on instruments made by Andreas Ruckers or his son, ca. 1628-1654. In addition to flowers, birds, insects, shrimp, and arabesques is the date, 1643, in red within a banner.

Click on any area of the soundboard to see a larger image.

Plan View Bird, flower, dragon fly Flower Soundboard painting Soundboard painting Soundboard painting Soundboard painting Soundboard painting Soundboard painting Soundboard painting Painting around rose and date, 1643 Peacock and flower Fly Soundboard painting Iris and grasshopper Soundboard painting Wrestplank Pear and fly Soundboard decoration Soundboard painting Soundboard painting Soundboard painting Soundboard painting Soundboard painting Soundboard painting Soundboard painting

Unfortunately, the gilt cast-lead rose with the maker's initials flanking a harp-playing angel is missing, perhaps removed in the 18th century to enhance a fake "Ruckers" harpsichord. It would have been nearly identical to the original rose in the NMM's 1607 Ruckers.

Painting on Interior of Lid

Interior lid painting

The interior of the lid features a charming painting in the manner of the Ruckers' contemporary, Frans Francken.

Click on scenes above to see enlargements.

Literature:   Grant O'Brien, Ruckers: a Harpsichord and Virginal Building Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 267.

Sheridan Germann, "The Accidental Collector," Early Keyboard Studies Newsletter, Vol. 5, No. 3 (March 1991), pp. 1-5.

Donald H. Boalch, Makers of the Harpsichord and Clavichord 1440-1840. Third edition, edited by Charles Mould (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), p. 562.

Sheridan Germann, "Harpsichord Decoration: a Conspectus," in The Historical Harpsichord 4, edited by Howard Schott (Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2002), pp. 1-213, specifically pp. 129 and 131.

John Koster, "A Second 'Infinitely Precious Instrument' by Andreas Ruckers Enters the NMM's Collections," National Music Museum Newsletter Vol. 32, No. 3 (August 2005), pp. 4-5.

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Nameboard Keyboards Interior lid painting Interior lid painting Interior lid painting Interior lid painting