A Franco-Flemish double-manual harpsichord, originally a transposing harpsichord made in Antwerp in 1617, and then ravalé in Paris, possibly by François Étienne Blanchet in 1750, and then in stages by Jacques Barberini, Paris, c.1775 and by Nicolas Hoffman, 1786.

 

One of the parchment strips glued under the soundboard during the first grand ravalement in 1750

 

            The Franco-Flemish harpsichord was given a grand ravalement for the first time in 1750, the date written on all three rows of jacks which can be dated to this first ravalement.  This is also the date of the major part of the internal and external decoration of the lid.  The author of the ravalement is not known with certainty at this stage of the analysis (February, 2017) but it is strongly suspected to be by François Étienne Blanchet who had the title Facteur des clavessins du Roi.  It should be added that the work of the 1750 ravalement is of absolutely superb skill and craftsmanship and demonstrates an intimate knowledge of the design and technical procedures involved in harpsichord building and harpsichord ravalement.

            Whoever carried out this ravalement it is clear that the result was to extend the bass compass from a B1 (sounding G1) down to F1 by adding 6 semitones to the bass compass.  This involved widening the tail and replacing the spine side with a new slightly-longer piece of wood.  These additions are quite clear from what survives on the instrument.  But it must also have involved making a new wrestplank and nuts, a new baseboard, new internal framing, and new keyboards.  But critically the soundboard, soundbars and 4' hitchpin rail also all had to be extended on the bass side.  The extension of the soundboard was a particularly delicate job since it had to be carried out with the main section of the soundboard still in the instrument but totally unsupported along the edge to which the join had to be made.  This meant that, in order to get a clean join between the new, added wood and the old original soundboard wood, the workman had to plane the edge of the old soundboard in situ in the instrument.  This would have required making an elaborate supporting jig that would ensure that the edge of the old wood was not only perfectly straight, but was planed at an exact right-angle to the surface of the old soundboard.  However it was done, the execution was perfectly carried out and the join between the new and old soundboard wood is perfect along the entire length of the joint so that the visible join between the new wood extending the old soundboard wood is no more obvious than the joins between the planks of the original soundboard.  This is but one excellent example of the superb workmanship of the author of the 1750 ravalement.

            Once the join had been glued together and planed smooth, it was reinforced and strengthened underneath the soundboard by glueing thin strips of parchment across over the join between the old, original soundboard wood from 1617 and the new added soundboard wood.  The parchment strips were glued to the soundboard underneath the join by dipping them in hot animal glue in order to adhere them to the surface.  When parchment is wetted by the glue in this way it expands in all directions.  The advantage of using parchment to reinforce the joins is that, in drying, it then tries to shrink back to its original dimensions and this has the effect of pulling the edges of the join tighter together and holding the joint firmly in place.

            As is so often the case with the parchment strips used to reinforce the joins in the soundboard, old re-used parchment was employed to save the expense of using costly new parchment in a position that was totally unseen.  As in many other cases, these parchment strips are from old legal documents and have a number of inscriptions on them.  In this case the largest piece of parchment was once part of a document dealing with important figures in French politics from the period before the instrument was widened.  By far the most important and interesting of these parchments is the one seen below.  This parchment is located at the tail of the instrument (seen at the right in the photograph below) and is partly covered by one of the upper-level braces running from the spine to the bentside.  Because of the presence of this brace the whole of the parchment could not be photographed in its entirety.  I was therefore photographed in two sections and the two photographs were spliced together to give the composite photograph seen below.  The join between the two different kinds of soundboard wood covered over by the parchment strip can be seen clearly at the left-hand side of the photograph (arrow) where the difference in the type and size of the wood grain can be clearly distinguished.

 

 

          This is a composite photograph of one of the parchment strips securing part of the join made in the soundboard when the instrument was widened in 1750, possibly by François Étienne Blanchet in 1750.  The glue drips on the right-hand side of the photograph are at the join between the soundboard and the tail liner.  The end of the parchment has been cut off to match (more-or-less) the angle of the tail.  At the other end of the parchment strip the join between the darker narrower-grained original soundboard wood and the wider-grained added wood at the top can be seen quite clearly (arrow).

 

What remains of the writing on the parchment has been transcribed and it reads (beginning at the top right):

“ - - S. De Groubental /? autorisée des SS[Sieurs] leurs Epoux en presence d’un / le d’SS de Groubental pareillement au S[ieur]. Villebois   / [P] Germains . . . . aux S[ieur]. Villebois”.

 

            Not enough remains of the writing to make much sense of what is written there, but the names of Sieur de Groubental and Sieur Villebois are clear and unambiguous.  The form of address Sieur was an antiquated title of respect roughly equivalent to ‘Sire’ in English.  Both Groubental and Villebois were important figures in eighteenth-century French history in a number of different ways.

            Marc Ferdinand Grouber de Groubentall de Linière, born in 1739 and died in 1815, was the son of Ferdinand Joseph Grouber de Groubentall et de Marie-Anne Boutinot de Plainville.  He was a parliamentary lawyer of the French Parliament.  One of his jobs, with the help of Malesherbes, Tronchet and De Sèze was to defend Louis XVI against the will of the National Convention - the self-proclaimed judge and jury - in one of the most controversial trials of Western European history (another being that of Charles I of England).  The result, a severe threat to the well-being of de Groubentall himself and to his fellow defence lawyers, was that Louis XVI was sentenced to death and was beheaded.

            However, de Groubental's heritage lives on in the work he wrote: Théorie générale de l’administration politique des finances. Dédiée à Monsieur, frère du Roi, (Paris, for the author and Visse), 1788, notably dedicated to the brother of the King and published only one year before The French Revolution in 1789 and 4 years before the king was beheaded in 1793.  

           There are two important figures, father and son, in French history at the time of the ravalement of the instrument, who had the name Villebois.  It is unclear whether the name on the parchment refers to the father or to the son although it seems likely that it was the son.  The father was effectively, among other posts that he held, the Minister of Finance in Louisiana during some of the period before it was sold to the USA in 1803 by Napoleon.  Napoleon had to settle his enormous debts resulting from his military campaigns in Europe and he did this, in part, by selling off Louisiana .  The father Villebois died in New Orleans. 

 

Sieur Honoré Michel de Villebois (1702 - 1752) Il est aussi connu sous le nom de Sieur Honoré Michel de Villebois et de la Rouvillière, Honoré Michel de Villebois de La Rouvillière, Sieur Honoré de Villebois de la Rouvillière et Honoré Michel. Il est le fils de Sieur Jean Baptiste Michel de Caseneuve et Anne Roustan.  Il est le filleul de Honoré Michel et Françoise Tassy.  Il nait le 9 juillet 1702 à Toulon, 93, France. Il est conseiller du Roi, crivain de la Marine, puis commissaire général de la Marine, ordonnateur de la Louisiane et premier conseiller au conseil supérieur de la Louisiane. Il épouse Marie-Catherine-Élisabeth Bégon, fille de Charles-Michel Bégon et Marie-Isabelle Rocbert le 17 novembre 1737 à Montréal, Île de Montréal, Québec, Canada. Il décède le 18 décembre 1752 à la Nouvelle-Orléans, Louisiane, États-Unis.

 

           The son of the above Villebois was born in Montreal in what is now the Province of Quebec.  He became the Finance Minister of Quebec before Quebec was lost to the British in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759.

 

Sieur Honoré-Henry-Michel-Étienne Michel de Villebois (1738 - 1807), Il est le fils de Honoré de Villebois et Marie-Catherine-Élisabeth Bégon, Il nait le 23 octobre 1738 à Montréal, Île de Montréal, Québec, Canada.  Il est baptisé le 25 octobre 1738 à Notre-Dame, Montréal.  Il épouse Charlotte-Bénédicte-Ursule Potier, fille de Claude-Jean-Baptiste Potier et Julie-Marguerite Blanc le 18 juin 1771 à Versailles, France.  Il est commissaire général de la Marine en 1776.  Il décède en 1807 à Bordeaux, Gironde, France .

 

           There is, in fact, a total of 7 parchment strips glued under the soundboard to secure the ravalement join in the soundboard wood, but none of the other strips has the fore- or surname of anyone on them, and not enough script remains to make any sense of what little is written there.

 

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

 

 Problems 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 April 2018.