This is the second installment of the article “The Harpsichord in its Historical Context”, by Lissa Burkholder; the first installment came out in March—see below.
II.The Ruckers, the “Stradivari” of Harpsichord Building
The history of the harpsichord spans five centuries, and this is a blog post to be read on-screen, so we can’t go into much detail. Yet, to understand what a harpsichord IS, and means, today, you must try to imagine what it WAS. Because it WAS more than it IS – although it’s been making a tremendous comeback over the last few decades.
Rather than dealing with five centuries, let’s take a leap back in time together, to one place: Antwerp. (Flanders, now a part of Belgium.) The 16th century, and then going into the 17th.
One place, ANTWERP; and one family, the RUCKERS (also spelled, variously, Ruckaert, Ruckaerts, Rucqueer, Rueckers, Ruekaerts, Ruijkers, Rukkers). The Ruckers-Couchet dynasty of harpsichord builders. In instrument crafting, these names mean as much for the harpsichord as the name Stradivarius signifies for the violin.
What the harpsichord WAS: the epicenter of refinement, anywhere, everywhere in Europe, for solo playing or acting as the “rhythm guitar” playing basso continuo in any small band. And the hypocenter of the epicenter of that refinement, in the 17th and 18th centuries and today, are the Ruckers instruments, their craftsmanship, their beautifully balanced tone. Over one hundred thirty years, and four generations, this family, led by the patriarch, Hans Ruckers, learned the trade, passed it on, entered the professional guild, built up a clientele (in fact, in addition to locals, they exported, having Antwerp’s excellent port at their doorstep, to all over northern Europe, to North America, and South America), tried out and perfected all sorts of innovations (they pioneered the additional of a second manual), sophisticated their technique, materials, designs, and decoration over an extremely varied array of harpsichords and virginals, apprenticed sons, married, had children….
This is all true, tremendously true; and—sounds productive, placid, predictable, doesn’t it?
The story will continue in May, with Part III “The Ruckers, and Antwerp: the Epicenter”.