Franco-Flemish double-manual harpsichord, originally a 'transposing' harpsichord made in Antwerp in 1617, possibly by Frans van Huffel.  It was given a bass ravalement in Paris in 1750 by François Étienne Blanchet and it was later given a treble ravalement in 1786 by Jacques Barberini and Nicolas Hoffmann.

 

 

A Brief Musical and Decorative History of the Franco-Flemish Harpsichord

 

State 1 - 1617.  The original state is typical of a classic Flemish double-manual harpsichord made in Antwerp.  The instrument is possibly by Frans van Huffel.  The upper-manual compass was C/E to c3 at normal pitch, the lower-manual compass was C/E to f3 a fourth lower.  Such instruments are best known among the output of Ioannes and Andreas Ruckers, but it can be shown scientifically that the instrument is not by the Ruckers as it has numerous features that are totally different from normal Ruckers practice.

State 2 - ?c.1680?.  ‘Ghost State’ - place and date unknown.  Aligned keyboards with a compass G1/B1 to c3 with 50 notes.  No direct evidence has been found on the instrument of this state, but this is the usual first alteration to State 1, and the next state would follow logically on from this.

State 3 - c.1735, Paris.   Compass G1/B1 to d3 with 52 notes.  One note was added at the top and one at the bottom of the compass.  The surviving upper registers and lower guides all indicate a 52-note compass before additions to them were made in 1750, and then again later.  There is no evidence of what the decoration was like at this stage..  The genuine ‘HR’ rosette may have been inserted at this date to make a new buyer think the instrument was by Hans or Ioannes Ruckers.

State 4 - 1750, Paris.  The bass compass was extended down by 6 notes from B1 to F1 to give a compass from F1 to d3 with 58 notes.  Most of the case decoration and the majority of the inner and outer lid decoration date to this period.  The paintings of the lid and case have been attributed to François Boucher (29 September 1703 – 30 May 1770) with the ornaments around the painting attributed to Christophe Huet (1700 - 1759).  The bottom jacks of all three surviving rows have the date ‘1750’ written on them, and these and the 57 jacks above them all belong together and to this state.  The musical part of this state has been positively attributed to François Étienne Blanchet II (c.1730-1766),  facteur des clavessins du roi[sic]’  (see point 2 below).

State 5 - 1786, Paris.  Work carried out at this time is by Jacques Barberini [active 1782 - 1791] and Nicolas Hoffman [active 1786-1790], although the exact role that each played in this alterations is not clear.  The compass was widened in the treble by 3 notes from 58 to 61 notes to give F1 to f3.  The jacks and the treble extensions to the lower guides are clearly by a different hand to that of State 4 above.  F1 to f3 is still the present compass, and the classic compass of an 18th-century French harpsichord.  In the process of widening the instrument, the cheek was shortened, putting the figures painted in 1750 on this side slightly off-centre.  In the process the bentside was lengthened and the join at the treble end of the bentside was disguised with a kind of floral decoration. 

State 5 - 1786, Paris, (continued)  The effect of the alterations of State 5 was not only to extend the treble compass, but to ‘modernise’ the instrument to compete with changing taste and musical style.  At this time harpsichords were competing with pianos as ‘expressive’ instruments.  The Franco-Flemish harpsichord was therefore given a peau de buffle register and a genouillère to enable the player to ‘swell’ and change the registration without taking his/her hands off the keyboards.  Various internal blocks for the genouillère still remain as evidence of this state.  But unlike all other genouillère mechanism on historical harpsichords, the genouillère on this instrument was contained entirely within the case of the instrument and lacked the rocker-bar levers attached to the spine side of the instrument found on all of the other historical harpsichords with a genouillère.  It is interesting to postulate that the genouillère on this instrument may have been designed without the rocker-bar mechanism on the spine simply because of the beautiful decoration on the spine that would have been ruined by the addition of the presence of this rocker-bar mechanism.

           The front surface of the lower full-width belly-rail was inscribed “[Re]fait par N. Hoffmann a Paris 1786” which therefore gives the date and author of at least one of those who carried out this ravalement.  The peau de buffle upper guide from this state was re-used as a lower guide in the 1971 ‘restoration’ by Roberto de Regina in Buenos Aires (see below).   De Regina found the calling card of Jacques Barberini on the baseboard and so Barberini must also have had a hand in this state, but it seems now impossible to say which features belong to Barberini and which to Hoffmann.

 

General notes:  There is rigorous scientific evidence that the instrument was originally made in Antwerp and that it uses the Antwerp duim - the thumb or inch - in its design and construction.  However, most of the original design principles used in its construction are quite unlike those found in the instruments built in the usual Ruckers/Couchet tradition.  These make it clear that it was not originally an instrument from the Ruckers/Couchet workshops.

          The various alterations to the width of the case are visible on the surfaces at both sides of the case, lid and front flap, although sometimes these are disguised and covered over by later decorations.  The extensions to both ends of 2 of the 3 surviving registers and to the 3 lower guides are clearly visible, and the number of notes added at each stage tallies perfectly with the above compass history. 

          There can be no doubt that the surviving case and lid decorations are all from the 18th century with the exception of some badly-painted additions made around 1889 when the instrument is known to have been owned by Louis Tomasini in Paris.  These late decorations are similar to those of Daniel Merlin who decorated some other instruments by Tomasini and others (all now in Berlin) in 1889 for the Exposition Universelle for which the Eiffel Tower was built, and who also decorated some 'Roccoco' pianos by Pleyel. 

 

The dates that can be associated with this instrument with complete assurance are the following:

1.1617 - the date of construction is given in the first edition of the Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Ed. George Grove (Macmillan Pub., London, 1883) p. 197 which lists the instruments then thought to be by the various members of the Ruckers family:

      The measurements in the fourth column are all in inches and are all close to the total outside measurements of the lid of the instrument.

      The publication date of this entry [1883] follows shortly after the date 1878 given here when the instrument was known to have belonged to 'M. Pilette' in Brussels.  The source of the information is Victor Mahillon, one-time director of the Brussels Museum of Musical Instruments.  The statement: ‘Paintings in Vernis Martin, lately removed’ in the above entry almost certainly refers, not to the external decoration which clearly still exists, but to the soundboard decoration which, along with the date, was removed.  This is confirmed by the later editions of Grove's Dictionary which do not give the date but list the instrument as ‘n.d.’ = no date  The soundboard seems later to have been re-decorated (without a date) by Mabel Dolmetsch when it belonged to Arnold Dolmetsch.  Similar details in the subsequent entries in the later editions of Grove's Dictionary make it clear that this entry does, in fact, refer the same instrument.

2. 1750 - the date written on the top d3 jack of two of the three of the surviving rows of jacks with 58 jacks in each row.  This number of jacks corresponds to the width of the instrument when the tail, spine and front board ornaments and the inside and outside of the lid ornaments and paintings were originally painted.  Many features of the musical and case alterations which were made to the instrument in 1750 are of absolutely superb quality typical of the work of François Étienne II Blanchet, who has been positively identified as the author of the ravalement.   François Étienne II Blanchet had the title Facteur des clavessins du Roi, and this of course, helps to tie the instrument to the French Court during the period around 1750. 

 

Click here to see a larger image of the date 1750 on the jacks.

 

3. 1786 - the date written by Nicolas Hoffman on the front surface of the full-width lower belly rail and visible inside the keywell when the keyboards are removed:  "[Re]fait par Nicolas Hoffman a Paris 1786".  In 1786 the instrument had a full 5-octave compass from F1 to f3.  By this date Louis XV was dead so the instrument may then have belonged to Louis XVI.  Jacques Barberini must also have worked on the instrument at (or around) this time as his calling card was found on the full-width ravalement baseboard. 

4. 1878 - The harpsichord belonged to one M. Pilette (I can find nothing about this person) in Brussels according to the first edition of the Dictionary of Music and Musicians (see above).

5. 1889 -1892 - the period when the instrument was owned by Louis Tomasini and when he ‘restored’ the instrument, added some minor 'extra' elements to the case ornaments and probably had the soundboard painting removed.  He is known to have organised concerts in Paris on ‘The Gold Harpsichord’, and he made copies of the instrument on which concerts were also given.  This is probably the date of the stand since other instruments have stands in a similar style made during this period.

4. 1927 - A Sotheby's Sale catalogue for 13 May, 1927, indicates unambiguously that the instrument was sold in London from the estate of H.E. Crawley.  It was sold for £460 which, for 1927 is the equivalent of about £27,200 in 2017 prices.

 

- Grant O’Brien, 30 January, 2018

 

 

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Important Features of this harpsichord

 

A brief history of the musical and decorative states of the Franco-Flemish harpsichord

 

Details of the original state of the instrument

 

Details of the eighteenth-century states of this harpsichord

  

 Details of the modern history of this harpsichord

 

 A problem encountered in the ethical restoration of this harpsichord

 

 The attributions of the 1750 state to  François Étienne Blanchet, Christophe Huet and François Boucher

 

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This page was last revised on 30 January 2018.