This is the third installment of the article “The Harpsichord in its Historical Context”, by Lissa Burkholder; the other installments came out in previous months—see below.
III. The Ruckers, and Antwerp: the Epicenter
Well, these industrious, ingenious, inspired builders, the Ruckers and sons, certainly were productive (scholars estimate an output of up to eighty instruments per year) – but the situation wasn’t steadily placid, or predictable. In fact, the city of Antwerp—in the the year 1550, “the center of the entire international economy” —went through all sorts of vicissitudes as the century wore on.
Antwerp was tantamount to a Tokyo or New York City of today. Fortunes were amassed first on the pepper trade (Portuguese ships laden with pepper and cinnamon rolling into port), then the silver trade, then the textile trade. The also-Flemish city of Bruges had lost its port status with the silting-up of the Zwin, and Antwerp’s port reached pre-eminence, on the tidal estuary of the River Scheldt. Hundreds of ships would pass through every day, according to the Venetian envoy. With its highly efficient bourse, financiers lent money to the English government during 30 years – from 1544 to 1574, London bankers not having the heft to operate on that scale. It is estimated that the port of Antwerp was earning the Spanish crown seven times more revenues than the Americas were. There was money everywhere: rich aristocrats, well-to-do merchants…. Money for more than everyday things; for paintings, for fancy clothes, for music… and music, in that epoch, did not mean high-fidelity stereo sets, but INSTRUMENTS. Analogue. Acoustic. And everyone wanted a harpsichord in their house, or if not a harpsichord, a virginal; or perhaps both. Daughters, who weren’t allowed to work, were allowed to study music and play these lovely instruments. .. There was demand. And there were the Ruckers to fill that demand.
“The Music Lesson”, Jan Vermeer