G R A N T O ’ B R I E N
EARLY KEYBOARD INSTRUMENTS
Harpsichords, Virginals, Spinets and Clavichords
Restorations and Consultations
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 It was originally made in Antwerp in 1617, but not by one of the members of the Ruckers/Couchet family.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! 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. The quality of the sound of this harpsichord has even forced me to re-assess 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 also have to be re-assessed as well.
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 changes. It was given a bass grand ravalement which can be dated, from features of the lid decoration, 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 was commissioned for the French Court by Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV's grande maitresse. The two main female figures painted on the outside of the main lid and lid flap are only vaguely-disguised images of Mme de Pompadour. The third reclining female figure was painted in a period contemporary with the rest of the decoration, but then the painting of the face 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 outer-case decoration is, however, in two clearly distinguished hands. The figures are clearly by Boucher. But the decorative ornaments surrounding the Boucher-style figures can be positively attributed to Christophe I1 Huet (1700- 1759). However, the putto figures on the sides of the outer case and on the outside of the front flap 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 can also be confidently attributed to Huet.
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 in the modern revival of interest in the harpsichord and was owned by many of the most important figures who were active in the revival of interest in the harpsichord at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries.
Later in the twentieth century, the instrument passed through the hands of some of the most colourful and interesting figures associated with the harpsichord revival of the mid-twentieth century. It did, however, unfortunately suffer under the hands of some 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 here or on the image above for further information.
The stunningly-beautiful Franco-Flemish antique harpsichord harpsichord pictured above is for sale.
This harpsichord was originally built in Antwerp in 1617 but, although the date of construction is known, the original maker of the instrument is not known. It was originally a normal double-manual Flemish harpsichord with two keyboards at pitches a fourth apart, and with the usual disposition of 1x8', 1x4' and 4 registers - two for each keyboard. Although it has a genuine early Ioannes Ruckers 'HR' soundboard rosette, analysis of the structure and design of the instrument shows that, although it was made in Antwerp, it was not made by any of the members of the Ruckers family.
The instrument was mis a ravalement in Paris at some time between 1742/43 and 1750 when the bass compass was extended down to F1 and the treble compass was increased by one note up to d3 in the treble. The decoration almost all seems to date from this period when it was given its lavish gilt vernis-martin decoration with figure-paintings which can be attributed to François Boucher (1703 - 1770), and the ornaments surrounding these (and the ornaments without figure paintings on the spine) by Christophe II Huet (1700 - 1759). In 1750 it was altered by Francois Etienne Blanchet who made new jacks and perhaps made a new set of keyboards. It was then later given a further treble ravalement by extending the treble compass further up to f3 in 1786 by Jacques Barberini and Nicolas Hoffmann who also added a genouillère and added a peau de buffle register.
This seems to be the only French harpsichord in the world with a decorated spine. This seems to be consistent with it having been made and decorated for the French Court of Louis XV.
It is now a classic French double-manual harpsichord with a full 5-octave compass and a disposition with 2 x 8', 1 x 4' plus a peau de buffle set of jacks. The whole of the stunningly-beautiful decoration has now been carefully restored and gives the instrument an extremely ornate, luxurious and brilliant appearance. The sound is pure, full, rich and evenly-balanced across the entire compass of the instrument. The sound creates an impression of immense power and opulence, matching that of the Court of Louis XV for whom it was probably commissioned. The sound has made a lasting impression on everyone who has heard or played the instrument. It is, without a doubt, one of the finest and most beautiful examples of 18th-century French harpsichord decoration and building in existence.
by Grant O'Brien.
Re-published as a digital reprint by Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Harpsichord-making woods for sale
A small amount of the important woods normally used by harpsichord makers is available for sale. This is all very well-seasoned and of the highest quality available.
The types of wood include accurately-quartered Italian spruce soundboard wood. This soundboard wood is sold only in flitches of about 6 to 15 planks. Each flitch is a succession of slices from the same tree, and these can be used (as most Flemish and French makers did) to make a soundboard that is perfectly uniform in colour and texture because it is all of exactly the same wood, all from the same tree - for the whole of the soundboard.
Also available is a small amount of knot-free Italian cypress from Tuscany (cipresso netto) and some genuine African ebony (Diospyros crassiflora).
All of this wood was bought as air-dried, and is now more than 40 years old.
For further details of quantities and prices please see the woods section of this site.
lease follow the 'Contact link' in the column on the left.
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©Grant O'Brien, Edinburgh, 2021