The Andreas Ruckers Harpsichord (1646)

By Museum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

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.

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

1646 - 1976

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. 

Louis Couperin (1626- 1661), Chaconne (Suite in G Minor). Played by Hubert Bédard on the harpsichord by Andreas Ruckers (1646). Recorded in 1964.
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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).

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

The harpsichord Andreas (I) and/or his son made, was a very popular, standardized model which was a staple of the Antwerp harpsichord school.

It was an instrument with a single manual (keyboard), consisting of 45 keys. It had two sets of strings: a set of long, voluminous sounding strings (8’ or 8-foot) and a shorter, sharper sounding set of strings that sounded an octave higher (4’ or 4-foot).

The instrument was most likely decorated with simple, glued-on, block-printed paper.

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

The sets of strings of an Antwerp harpsichord could be activated and deactivated with the help of stops placed on the side of the instrument.

With these stops the musician was able to shift the guides that held the jacks in place and thus engage and disengage the registers (i.e. the guides and the jacks). This enabled either the 8-foot or 4-foot register to be played separately or else in unison. It meant that a musician was able to lend ‘colour’ in a variety of different ways to the same piece of music.

(When the instrument was updated in the 18th century it received a third set of strings, which explains the third stop on the instrument's side.)

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

Updating a harpsichord

The instrument that left the Ruckers workshop in 1646 was the kind of instrument a musician in the first part of the 17th century would have expected. But as the years passed and new repertoire made new demands, the instrument became old-fashioned and too limited. However, rather than discard it, it was eventually 'modernised' and enlarged.

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.

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

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.

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

The original soundboard of the instrument is still present. Its painted decoration is typical of the way Ruckers instruments were decorated: a combination of flowers and birds, and arabesques and other geometric patterns.

When, in the 18th century, the instrument was enlarged, the soundboard was enlarged as well. Part of the added wood can be seen on this photo: a straight strip, above the birds, between de wavy line and the side of the instrument. Painted flowers were added to give the soundboard a uniform look.

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

Visual splendour

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.

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

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).

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

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).

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

Music: Louis Couperin (1626- 1661), Passacaille (Suite in F major). Played by Hubert Bédard on the harpsichord by Andreas Ruckers (1646). Recorded in 1964.

Credits: Story

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

Music samples: Hubert Bédard, 1964.

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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