The Joannes Couchet Virginal (1650)

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. In this first part of our ongoing exploration, titled "Antwerp, City of Harpsichords", we take a closer look at a muselar – a harpsichord-like instrument – made in 1650 by Joannes Couchet of Antwerp.  

Harpsichord (1763) by Jacobus Van Den ElscheMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

Fecit Antverpiae

Museum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City preserves 12 harpsichords and virginals made in Antwerp ("fecit Antverpiae" in Latin) in the 17th and 18th century. At that time, Antwerp harpsichord makers were among the most famous instrument makers in the world, and Joannes Couchet (1615-1655) was one of the most important. In this tour we'll get up close with one of his five surviving instruments.

Virginal (muselar) (1650) by Joannes CouchetMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

Joannes Couchet of Antwerp

The last important member of a dynasty, Joannes Couchet is nowadays perhaps less well-known than his uncles and grandfather, who all carried the surname Ruckers. But he is an important representative of the traditions that made Antwerp an international centre of harpsichord making.

Harpsichord (1646) by Andreas Ruckers (I)Museum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

“Almande” (Susanne van Soldt Virginal Book) (excerpt)

The Ruckers-Couchet family is one of the most famous families of instrument makers. Hans Ruckers (ca.1545-1598) was the founder of an Antwerp dynasty whose members produced instruments that were sought after throughout Western Europe and far beyond.

Since the early sixteenth century, Antwerp had been an important centre for the making of harpsichords. Hans Ruckers, who came from a German immigrant family, his sons Joannes and Andreas (I) and grandsons Andreas (II) and Joannes Couchet brought the production to a higher level. Their instruments were versatile, robust and reliable and had a powerful tone.

Virginal (muselar) (1650) by Joannes CouchetMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

Hans Ruckers was succeeded by his sons Joannes and Andreas (I). Joannes had no sons and for that reason he trained his sister’s son, Joannes Couchet.

In 1642 Joannes Couchet completed his training and became a master craftsman in the Guild of Saint Luke, the guild of the painters, printers and harpsichord makers.

Joannes Couchet must have built many dozens of instruments, but only four harpsichords and one virginal survive. Couchet's surviving virginal, which was made in 1650 and is now part of the Museum Vleeshuis collection, closely follows the example set by the instruments of Hans Ruckers and his sons.

Harpsichord (1644) by Andreas Ruckers (I)Museum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

John Bull (ca.1562-1628), “The King’s Hunt”. Played by Mario Sarrechia on a copy by Jean-Pierre Hemmeryckx of the Andreas Ruckers (1644) harpsichord (Museum Vleeshuis). Recorded August 2020.

Harpsichords are the most famous members of the early modern keyboard family. They have more or less the same basic shape as a modern piano, but they are smaller and lighter and they sound and work entirely different: the strings of a piano are struck by hammers, while the strings of a harpsichord are plucked.

By depressing a key, a jack (a long, thin piece of wood) is lifted up. A small plectrum is attached to the upper end of the jack; this passes just under the string. When the key is depressed, the jack rises and its plectrum plucks the string.

Virginal (muselar) (1650) by Joannes CouchetMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

John Bull (ca.1562-1628), Fantasia. Played by Korneel Bernolet on a copy by Walter Maene of the Joannes Couchet (1650) virginal (Museum Vleeshuis). © 2018 Musica Ficta, Transports Publics & Museum Vleeshuis

A lesser-known relative of the harpsichord is the virginal. However, between 1500 and 1650 the virginal was at least as popular as the harpsichord, perhaps even more so.

Virginals have a polygonal or rectangular shape, and their keyboards are located on the longer side of the instrument. Technically they work the same way as harpsichords.

There are two kinds of virginals. Virginals with the keyboard on the left hand side and a sharper, harpsichord-like sound are called virginals of the spinet type. Virginals with the keyboard on the right hand side and a softer, gentler sound are called muselars (muselaars).

Joannes Couchet's single surviving virginal is a muselar.

A Young Woman standing at a Virginal A Young Woman standing at a Virginal (about 1670-2) by Johannes VermeerThe National Gallery, London

The origin of the name "virginal" is unclear. In paintings, such as in Vermeer's Lady standing at a virginal, it is often young women ("virgins") who are seen playing these instruments. However, it is unlikely that the assumed virginal or maidenly nature of the players can be an explanation for the name; after all, young women did play other instruments besides (harpsichords, for example).

The word "virginal" may derive from the Latin word "virga", meaning a "rod", which in turn might refer to the instrument’s jacks.

Virginal (muselar) (1650) by Joannes CouchetMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

Decorating a virginal

Antwerp harpsichords and virginals share many technical and decorative characteristics, most of which are present in the virginal built by Joannes Couchet. In turn, these characteristics can help us identify an instrument as coming from Antwerp or having been inspired by the Antwerp style.

Virginal (muselar) (1650) by Joannes CouchetMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

Like most Antwerp harpsichords and virginals, many of the decorations on the Couchet virginal were painted on. However, the front of the instrument and the borders along the soundboard were decorated with printed paper.

The use of printed paper was a time and cost-saving means of applying decorations. It made Antwerp harpsichords and virginals more attractive and appealing to potential buyers and partly explains their success.

Paper with printed decorations as found on Antwerp harpsichords, including instruments by the Ruckers family, 1961/1986, From the collection of: Museum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City
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Virginal (muselar) (1650) by Joannes CouchetMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

The soundboards of Ruckers-Couchet instruments have all been painted with a combination of flowers (such as lilies, cornflowers, tulips, irises, forget-me-nots, peonies, roses and/or lilies-of-the-valley). There are a great many similarities with the floral motifs used in Flemish illuminated manuscripts.

Virginal (muselar) (1650) by Joannes CouchetMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

When decorating the soundboard, extra attention was given to the area around the so-called rose.

This gilded rose was a maker's signature and all Antwerp builders used it. The Ruckers-Couchet family used the image of a winged angel playing the harp. Also included are the maker's initials. "I C" refers to Joannes (Ioannes) Couchet.

Virginal (muselar) (1650) by Joannes CouchetMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

The keys were cut from lighter wood and inlaid with bone (the white keys) or cut from darkened wood or bog wood (the black keys).

Builders often embellished the keyfronts with gothic arcades, pressed in glued-on strips of paper or parchment.

An Antwerp virginal or harpsichord from the first half of the 17th century typically had 45 keys (a modern grand piano has 88).

Virginal (muselar) (1650) by Joannes CouchetMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

A painted lid

The most colourful part of the Couchet virginal is of course its lid, decorated with a view of the city of Antwerp.

Harpsichord (1644) by Andreas Ruckers (I)Museum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

Large sheets of paper with a printed woodgrain motif were stuck to the underside of the lids of Antwerp virginals and harpsichords. Latin quotations - for example, "Sic transit gloria mundi", 'Thus passes worldly glory" - were then placed on these sheets in ink.

This was the most cost-saving method of decorating a harpsichord or virginal.

Virginal (muselar) (1650) by Joannes CouchetMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

However, anyone with the means could always decide to have their harpsichord lid painted, perhaps even by (the studio of) a master such as Peter Paul Rubens, Jan Brueghel, Frans Francken (II), Hendrick van Baelen or Maerten de Vos. This would at once double an instrument’s price.

Sadly, most of the lids painted by great masters (or their studio assistants) are now lost.

The name of the artisan who decorated the Couchet lid is unknown.

The painting on the inside of the lid of the Couchet virginal depicts Antwerp in the 17th century, as seen from the left bank of the river Scheldt. At the heart of the painting the Antwerp cathedral can be seen.

Under the watchful eye of an older man and his dog, three younger men are playing a game called "krulbollen", also known as "rolle bollen". Krulbollen is a bowling sport related to boules, which originates from the Flanders region of Belgium.

The painted decoration looks authentic. But does it date from 1650?

Research has revealed that the paintwork has been applied over the hinges and that a substance is present in those hinges which was in use only from the early eighteenth century onwards.

So what happened? It seems likely that a canny eighteenth- or nineteenth-century salesman may have had the instrument partially redecorated. This would have made the instrument more valuable to a potential buyer.

So, for all we know, Couchet's virginal may originally have been decorated with printed paper and a motto.

Virginal (muselar) (1650) by Joannes CouchetMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

The back of the virginal and the lid are decorated with arabesques and two coats of arms.

The lid is decorated with the coat of arms of the Margrave of Antwerp...

... and the back of the case is decorated with the coat of arms of Nicolaas Rockox.

Rockox was a celebrated mayor of Antwerp who died in 1640. However, the virignal was built in 1650, ten years after the death of Rockox. This again suggests the case and lid of the instrument were redecorated at a (much) later date.

Gustav Leonhardt playing the Joannes Couchet virginal (1970)Museum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

The Couchet virginal was acquired by Museum Vleeshuis in 1967. It was then restored so it could once again be played.

In May 1970, Dutch Early Music specialist Gustav Leonhardt performed in Museum Vleeshuis. He was the first to give a recital on the then-recently restored instrument.

By the early 2000's the instrument's condition had deteriorated due to intensive use and it was decided to preserve the instrument, rather than have it undergo another drastic restoration.

Virginal (muselar) (1650) by Joannes CouchetMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

In 2018 the Snijders&Rockoxhuis museum (Antwerp), the former home of mayor Nicolaas Rockox, invited Museum Vleeshuis to design a 17th-century music room.

One of the objects on display in that room is the virginal Joannes Couchet made in 1650. It is surrounded by other musical instruments from the 17th century.

Credits: Story

This virtual exhibit was created by Museum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City, Antwerp. Visit us at

A very special thanks to musicians Korneel Bernolet and Mario Sarrechia.

For the Music Room in the Snijders&Rockoxhuis Museum, Museum Vleeshuis asked ensemble Transports Publics to record an album:
On that album Korneel Bernolet plays on a copy of the Couchet virginal.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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