FRANCO-FLEMISH HARPSICHORDS after RUCKERS-HEMSCH 1636/1763
I first started making harpsichords in the early 1970s I was looking
for an instrument to copy that would allow players to perform the
entire repertoire from very early times through to the end of the
Baroque era and for the music from any part of that two hundred and
fifty year period to sound good. Tonally it had to be an instrument
with a very clear attack of harmonics - something with a strong fundamental,
but plenty of upper partials to provide a clear percussion when each
jack is fired, then a long sustaining sound to follow.
great Flemish tradition started in Antwerp around the beginning of
the sixteenth century and gave rise to perhaps the most celebrated
of all makers, the Ruckers family. The construction of their harpsichords
was more robust than the Italians with longer scales which produced
a tone in which the initial energy imparted to the string by the pluck
is not drained off so quickly.
The Ruckers was certainly the most sought-after harpsichord by the
aristocracy and their composers. According to the Dictionnaire
des Arts et Métiers under the section ‘Characteristics
of a good harpsichord’ (1785)…
The only problem was that many of these originals were rather limited in scope: they were usually of just a single keyboard with a compass of only four octaves or just over. They were fine in the main for continuo work and pieces composed specifically for an instrument with such a range, but in order to perform the great solo works of the Baroque and Classical period a wider compass was required.
The French connection comes in the form of a solution to this problem by what was called in the eighteenth century clavecins à grand ravalement - the extension of a small instrument with limited keyboard range to a larger one by way of a re-build. This ravalement resulted in a compass of a full five octaves, often with the addition of another keyboard, to result in a double manual harpsichord and meant that the tone of the instrument was preserved, yet its scope greatly enhanced.
The harpsichord I chose to copy was such an instrument. It was built originally in 1636 by Andreas Ruckers the Younger and then extended in 1763 by the Parisian maker Henri Hemsch by order of the Countess of Savoy. It was one of the instruments in the collection of my teacher, Michael Thomas of Hurley Manor, Henley-on-Thames. Today this harpsichord is to be found in a collection housed in National Trust property at Hatchlands, Surrey.
During the ravalement little, if anything, was discarded. The cheek was certainly taken off and so was the straight side, but after slight additions to widen it to put on two or three extra notes, they were put back again so the whole of the middle of the harpsichord is untouched Ruckers: the bridge, the soundboard even the struts and bars are all original and unaltered so it is as near a Ruckers as it possibly can be. Monsieur Hemsch obviously worked with great sensitivity.
It was a marvellous opportunity to have direct access to this instrument. Not only did Michael give me a wonderful training into how to obtain the best tone, he permitted me to place the newly made harpsichords side by side the original and thus compare the sound. This access and chance to make a direct comparison would be almost impossible in any of the major museums and collections.