The Flemish Harpsichord
If this article wets your appetite for harpsichord decoration, check out my detailed blog explaining the process I used when decorating my Flemish Single harpsichord in an authentic 17th century style

A reproduction of a Flemish Double Harpsichord after Ruckers

Harpsichord history certainly does not begin with Hans Ruckers, but his contribution to instrument design does mark a significant change compared to its predecessors. We are in fact not just referring to the contributions of one man but rather a family dynasty which spans the foundation years of the Baroque. Without a doubt the literature that would come to be written during the Baroque reflects his design features and advantages.

Most famously associated with the Ruckers design was the addition of a second keyboard. The Flemish double (as opposed to the Flemish single having only one keyboard) provided a second keyboard for transposition (usually a 4th apart) allowing the player to change key on the fly by simply playing on the alternate keyboard. One can also imagine the possibilities of applying a different temperament when turning the harpsichord between the two keyboards. Obviously, in these cases the two keyboard would not have been used at the same time. It was only later, mostly in the French tradition (ravalement), that the second keyboard was pitched the same as the lower keyboard allowing the player to shift between the two creating a concertante (contrast) typical of the Baroque. Where the second keyboard is visibly the most distinct trait of the Ruckers design, it is far from the only significant contribution.

A genre painting by Jan Steen showing a girl taking a harpsichord lesson on a Flemish instrument

Overall the Ruckers family instruments are a more sturdy design - certainly when compared to the Italian instruments which dominated the harpsichord literature in the earlier days. A heavier and more solid case meant the instrument could use a longer iron string more tightly strung. In the end these harpsichords were brighter, and much more vibrant than heretofore. Its not surprising the Flemish harpsichord quickly become the preferred instrument for playing Baroque counterpoint. It wasn't just in the solo literature these instruments prevailed, but their sparking vibrancy would also stand up well in orchestral settings. As the genre paintings of the mid 17th century demonstrate, the Flemish single had become commonplace in most Bourgeois homes.

The sturdy designed case also provided the benefit of a new distribution of registers for the harpsichord. A typical harpsichord of the past would have two 8' sets of strings - meaning that where you would have a slight timbre difference between the two sets of strings, the pitch in which they were tuned was at the unison. Either 8' string could be used individually with one having a more nasal sound to distinguish it from the other string, or the two could be set to play together. The Ruckers design on the other hand replaces one of the 8' string with a shorter one (4') pitched at the octave above. When engaged, the 4' adds a bright clarity and a crisp timbre enhancing polyphonic textures now preferred. To add even more variety of timbre to the plucked string Ruckers eventually added a buff stop which could be slid in place to press small pieces of animal leathers against the string causing it to me muted almost reminiscent of a lute.

A reproduction of a Flemish Single Harpsichord after Ruckers from the Zuckermann workshop

In time the recognition of the Flemish harpsichord become associated as much with its distinctive decorative style. Brightly marbled sides, ornamental block-printed papers, and Latin mottos adorn the typical instruments. In some cases the lids would even be shipped to a painter's studio to have a landscape painting placed on the inside. Hans lived in Antwerp contemporary to the great painter Rubens. It is not difficult to imagine the artisans and apprentices between these two workshops would have developed a positive synergy.

As the Baroque unfolds and style and musical tastes evolve the Flemish harpsichord of the Ruckers family is eclipsed by the French ravalement. It was here that the second manual was pitched to the unison with the rest of the instrument so that the two keyboards could be played together. These instruments would usually have two 8' strings in addition to a 4'. It was during this time that many of the Ruckers' instruments were modified to accommodate these new preferences. Except for the soundboard, these French doubles were less elaborately decorated. In the French style the keyboard would be reversed so that the naturals would be in a dark ebony and the accidentals topped in white bone.

A painting by Vermeer showing a Bourgeois family gathered around a Flemish single. The lid is painted with a landscape.