Harpsichords by the Ruckers family are praised for their superb tone, thanks to the instrument maker's understanding of the harmonic aspects. Comparable with what the Stradivarius is for the violin family, the name of Ruckers has a similar quality aspect for the harpsichords.
This article investigates the extent of production and perception of dynamic differences on a French historical harpsichord, extensively revised in 1788 by Pascal Taskin. A historical review reports on the descriptions of two different types of touch found in treatises of the 18th century. These two touches (loud/struck and soft/pressed) were used to perform single tones on the lower, upper, peau de buﬄe (PDB) registers (the last of which Taskin is credited with having invented) and the coupled 8-foot registers to investigate differences in dynamics. Acoustic measurements show varied differences of up to 11 dB for the two types of touch over different pitches in each register. The strongest difference is measured in the first harmonic of note F2 on the PDB. A listening experiment was conducted to test whether these differences are perceivable. Participants performed a discrimination task using pairs of single tones. Participants were able to perform significantly better than chance in correctly identifying whether pairs of single tones were same or different with respect to loudness [t(24) = 12.01, p < 0.001]. Accuracies were influenced by pitch and register, the PDB providing the strongest accuracies over the four registers tested.
Citation: MacRitchie J and Nuti G (2015) Using historical accounts of harpsichord touch to empirically investigate the production and perception of dynamics on the 1788 Taskin. Front. Psychol. 6:183. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00183
Johannes Vermeer depicted them, George Frideric Handel played them, and Peter Paul Rubens decorated them: Antwerp harpsichords and virginals are an indispensable part of European art and music history. As part of our series "Antwerp, City of Harpsichords" we explore a harpsichord made by Andreas Ruckers in 1646.
In 1976 the Museum Vleeshuis acquired a single manual harpsichord made by Andreas Ruckers exactly 330 years earlier, in 1646. The instrument had been thoroughly altered (enlarged) in the 18th century and had been completely restored in 1962-1964. Despite its age and the changes it underwent, the harpsichord retains many of the features that are typical of the famous Antwerp school of harpsichord making.
The harpsichord was made in 1646 by Andreas Ruckers (I) (1579-c.1652) or his son, also called Andreas (II) (1607-before 1667). Both worked in the tradition of the Antwerp harpsichord school, established in the 16th century. The most famous member of this school was Hans Ruckers, the father of Andreas (I).After the death of Hans in 1598, Hans's sons Joannes and Andreas took over their father's workshop until they went their separate ways around 1608. In time, Andreas (II) apprenticed in his father's workshop, and his instruments were nearly indistinguishable from those of Andreas (I).
The process of modernisation, called "ravalement", was very popular in the late 17th century and during the entire 18th century. Most surviving instruments by the Ruckers-Couchet family have undergone some form of ravalement.A ravalement could be "petit" (small) when only the keyboard was slightly expanded and the strings were altered (for example, the original 4-foot and 8-foot strings were replaced with two sets of 8-foot strings). Or it could be "grand" (large) when the entire case was altered and enlarged.During the modernisation process of the 1646 harpsichord the number of keys was increased from 45 to 54, and an extra set of 8-foot strings was added. The case was enlarged on both sides and the lid was replaced with a larger lid. The rose and soundboard painting are still original.
In 1962-1964 the harpsichord was restored by William Post Ross in the workshop of Frank Hubbard (Boston, USA). During the restoration process Ross discovered that the instrument's internal framing had been completely altered as part of the ravalement. These changes had also been marked in pencil on the instrument's base plate. These pencil markings and the accompanying notes, written in Dutch, are extremely rare witnesses of the way harpsichords were updated in the 18th century.
Today the instrument is too fragile to be used as a concert instrument. Nevertheless, its visual appearance is striking, and the harpsichord combines decorative elements from the 17th, 18th and 20th centuries.
The signature of an Antwerp harpsichord maker was the gilded rose in an instrument's soundboard. The Ruckers-Couchet family used the image of a winged harp player combined with the maker's initials. In this case: "A R", Andreas Ruckers.The rose in this harpsichord is an authentic rose.The soundboard was decorated with painted images of flowers, birds and insects. Around the rose a wreath of flowers was painted.
Antwerp harpsichord makers often embellished the keyfronts with gothic arcades cut in the wood or with glued-on parchment. When this instrument was enlarged and its keyboard expanded, the keyfronts had to be redecorated. The decorator used leather and gold blocking. The result is quite stunning.The keys were cut from lighter wood and inlaid with bone (rather than ivory) (the white keys or naturals) or cut from darker wood (the black keys).
When the instrument was enlarged, its original lid was replaced with a new one. The lids of Antwerp harpsichords were often decorated with block-printed papers and an instructive motto. Sometimes they were decorated with paintings made by great Antwerp artists.When the instrument received a new lid, it was decorated in a rather unique way. The decorator cut out a number of engravings, glued them to the lid and colorised them. The central image is part of an engraving made by Claude-Antoine Littret in 1766. This engraving was, in turn, based on a painting by Carle van Loo, "Le concert du grand sultan" (1737).
Two types of stringed keyboard instrument were available to the household or court musician from the 16th century to the middle of the 18th: the harpsichord and its near relations, the spinet and virginal; and the clavichord.
In the harpsichord family the string is plucked by a small plectrum, originally of quill. The variety of sound from these plucked instruments is achieved not primarily by finger pressure, but more subtly by phrasing and articulation. Variety of tonal color can be obtained, on a harpsichord by judicious choice of registration. The harpsichord was used both for solo performance and accompanying in chamber groups and in larger ensembles of the period. It typically had two sets of strings per key, tuned either to the same pitch or with one set sounding an octave higher (a 4' register). The registers were controlled by hand stops above the keyboard. Two manuals (keyboards) were to be found on certain larger instruments, which usually featured three sets of strings.
Found from the beginning of the 16th century, the Italian harpsichords were lightly constructed, almost invariably finished in natural wood. They usually had a single manual and a basic registration of two 8' stops which were often used together, although a 4' stop was occasionally an option. They have a characteristically pungent, immediate, almost at times percussive tone which is well suited to 17th century Italian music.
The other main type of harpsichord in use from the early 17th century was the Flemish style instrument, and it is the name of the Ruckers family that is most associated with this influential tradition. Flemish instruments were more solidly constructed than the Italian, invariably with the basic two sets of strings (either one 8' and a 4' or both at 8' pitch). Two manuals were common, though the upper manual was originally used for transposing; only in the second half of the 17th century was the additional manual used for contrast of tone with the ability to couple the registers of both manuals for a fuller sound. The Flemish often painted their instruments, decorative lids and soundboards being common features. French instruments developed from the Flemish design. Many so-called French harpsichords were in fact Flemish in origin, rebuilt by French makers who increased the compass in both treble and bass.
English harpsichords, in contrast, had a directness and down-to-earth quality both in appearance and sonority with a characteristically powerful tone, a reedy treble and a sonorous bass. Of polished veneered wood, with a straight, plain design, they could equally have one or two manuals. In general terms the harpsichord as a solo instrument was perhaps less popular in Germany than in France or England.
The spinet is a smaller, domestic harpsichord normally with one string per note. Having a shorter string length, the strings often run diagonally from the keyboard in order to save space. The virginal (or virginals, the plural being equally correct) also has one string per note but here these run parallel to the keyboard. This useful domestic instrument was more popular than the harpsichord in northern Europe (particularly in England and the Low Countries) in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
Choosing different registers and parameter combinations (mic adjustments, etc) can vastly change the tone of the instrument and perceived playing space, which is perfect for any mixing situation where the harpsichord can be adjusted properly, without compromising the true sound of the instrument. All the different register combinations are also available as key switches placed close to the bottom of the keyboard, so that the register combination could be edited with a single key.
The harpsichord is presented in its original Valotti-tuning at 392 Hz, capturing all 3 register variations - 8', 4' and both registers together. Presets at 440 Hz pitch and with equal temperament tuning are also available. 2b1af7f3a8