A Franco-Flemish double-manual harpsichord,
This part of Grant O'Brien's web-site is about the history and restoration of a stunningly-beautiful double-manual harpsichord. It was made in Antwerp in 1617, and ravalé by François Étienne Blanchet, Paris, in 1750. This ravalement was probably commissioned by Mme. de Pompadour for Louis XV. It was given a further ravalement in Paris in 1786 by J. Barberini and N. Hoffmann.
Its decoration is one of the finest of any surviving harpsichord, and it also has an exceptionally fine, rich resonant sound, ideal for the 18th-century French- harpsichord repertoire.
Click on the images and links below and at the bottom of this page to see
more images and detailed information about this splendid instrument.
This stunningly-beautiful double-manual harpsichord started life as a so-called 'transposing' harpsichord made in Antwerp in 1617 by an unknown maker. Then, much later during the second half of the eighteenth-century it was given a series of ravalements in Paris in several stages. These alterations and the decorations carried out at the same time were carried out by some of the most important and famous French harpsichord makers and artists in the period from about 1742 - 1786. At some date between 1742 - 1750 the first grand ravalement widened the case on the bass side, extending the bass compass down to F1. In 1750 it was given its exceptionally lavish decoration by François Boucher and Christophe II Huet. In 1750 it was given a treble extension up to d3 by François Étienne Blanchet, who later became the court harpsichord maker to Louis XV.
It seems highly likely that it was given its extravagant decoration because of its amazing sound and it is, indeed, still today one of the finest-sounding instruments in the history of French harpsichord making. It may have played an important role in the social and musical life of the French Court at the time of Louis XV.
The instrument has also had an amazing recent history ranging across much of Western Europe, the United States and South America. It turns out to be a very important document in the history of the modern revival of interest in the harpsichord and its music. It was restored by Louis Tomasini in Paris shortly before 1889 and was played in the concerts given by Louis Diémer during the great 1889 Exposition Universelle for which the Eiffel Tower was built. Its modern history involves some very important figures who influenced major world events - not necessarily involving music nor furniture decoration!
This instrument is of the highest historical and musical importance for a number of reasons:
This instrument is a very rare example of a surviving NON-RUCKERS double-manual harpsichord that is still in excellent playing condition: it may even be unique in this respect! It was originally made in Antwerp in 1617, but not by one of the members of the Ruckers/Couchet family. No other non-Ruckers seventeenth-century Antwerp harpsichord is known in such excellent condition and with such a rich, pure, powerful sound. The sound is sonorous, resonant and evocative of the period and circumstances in which the instrument had its heyday in the Court of Versailles particularly during the period around 1750. It has a never-to-be-forgotten sound! Indeed, the sound of the instrument can only be described as superb! Experts agree that it has a power, clarity and beauty unmatched by any other extant eighteenth-century French harpsichord or French ravalement harpsichord. The quality of the sound of this harpsichord has even forced me to re-assess the widely-held opinion about the sound of a genuine Ruckers/Couchet harpsichord. To me this means further that the relative position of the Ruckers/Couchet family in the history of the harpsichord will now, as a result of the emergence of this harpsichord, also have to be re-assessed as well.
As mentioned above, the harpsichord has survived in remarkably good condition and various features of its past history are still clear and evident. These features show that the harpsichord underwent a number of different compass and disposition changes. It was given a bass grand ravalement which can be dated, from features of the lid decoration and the dating of the surviving jacks, to the period between 1745 and 1750.
Like the ravalement, most of the surviving decorations of the instrument were carried out between c.1745 and 1750. There are two large groups of figures painted on the outside of the lid and lid flap, which are clearly in the painting style of Francois Boucher, and can be confidently attributed to him. Boucher was the Court painter to Louis XV, and there is a number of reasons for believing that the ravalement and decoration of this instrument were commissioned for the French Court by Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV's grande maitresse. Two of the principal female figures painted on the outside of the main lid and lid flap are undisguised images of Mme de Pompadour. A fourth reclining female figure was painted in a period contemporary with the rest of the decoration, but then the painting of the face of this fourth figure was altered, probably in 1752 when Marie-Louis O'Murphy became Louis' favourite petite maitresse. It seems clear that, just as the paintings of Venus and Flora are portraits of Mme de Pompadour, the third figure represents Marie-Louise O'Murphy.
The painting of the exterior decoration is, however, in two clearly distinguished hands. The four figures mentioned above are clearly all by Francois Boucher. But the decorative ornaments surrounding the Boucher-style figures can further be positively attributed to Christophe I1 Huet (1700- 1759). However, there are also putto figures ornamenting the case sides and front flap, and these are also in the style of Christophe Huet and have also been attributed to him. The decorations on the spine of the case and on the inside of the front flap are lacking any images of putti, but can also be confidently attributed to Huet. Two of the large trophies of musical instruments on the spine have been attributed to Antoine Watteau (1684-1721).
The instruments was given a further alteration, probably without widening the compass, in 1750 by Francois Étienne Blanchet (1695 - 1761), perhaps, indeed at the same time as the decoration of the case by Boucher and Huet. Francois Blanchet was the Court harpsichord builder to Louis XV.
Having served its time at the Court of Louis XV, the instrument went through a second grand ravalement in 1786 extending the treble compass to give it a full five-octave compass and, with the addition of a genouillère and peau de buffle register, it then had all of the features necessary for the performance of the whole of the great French eighteenth-century literature for the harpsichord. It can therefore play all of the works of Francois Couperin, Jean-Phillipe Rameau, Gaspard Le Roux, Mondonville and Jean-Baptiste Forqueray.
The instrument played an important role at the French eighteenth-century Court, but then took a further important place in the modern revival of interest in the harpsichord. It was owned by many of the most important figures active in the revival of interest in the harpsichord at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries including Louis Tomasini, .
Later in the twentieth century, the instrument passed through the hands of some of the most interesting, colourful and destructive figures associated with the harpsichord revival of the mid-twentieth century. It did, however, unfortunately suffer under the hands of some of these ill-informed, un-enlightened modern harpsichord 'restorers'.
I have now had a considerable amount of experience studying, examining, playing, and writing about the instruments of the Ruckers/Couchet family, but I have never heard a genuine Ruckers or Couchet harpsichord comparable in its sound to this amazing instrument!!
Click on the images links listed below for information about the history of the instrument.
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
Click on the images and links below for information about the decorative history of the instrument.
Click on this image to see details of the 1927 Sotheby's sale catalogue.
|The sections below relate to the scientific studies of the paintwork and decoration and to how these relate to the attribution of the various states and OF THE painter/decorators who worked on this instrument|
The following 4 images on the right all show clear evidence of the work of Christophe II Huet in the decoration of the instrument.
This harpsichord is for sale
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This page was last revised on 07 July 2022.