11 · Harpsichord

Full Description

French, 18th century
By François Etienne Blanchet the Elder, Paris, Ca 1742

Compass: five octaves, FF to e’’’.
Length 232.4 cm; width 90.8 cm; depth ocf case 26.0 cm; octave span 15.9 cm
Two manuals and three choirs of strings (2 x 8’, 1 x 4’)
String scale: c’’ = 34.0 cm

The name batten (spurious) is inscribed: “Refait par Blanchet Facteur du Roi A Paris c. 175-”. The outside of the case is painted with gold leaves, flowers, and arabesques over a brownish green background. The inside of the lid features two painted pastoral landscapes. The instrument is supported by a painted cabriole stand. The soundboard is painted with flowers and bears a spurious Joannes Ruckers cast metal rose. The keyboards and jacks are modern replacements. [Restored to playing condition.]

On these “French double harpsichords” the upper keyboard controls one choir of strings at normal, or 8-foot pitch, while the lower keyboard controls another 8-foot choir and a 4-foot choir sounding an octave higher.  Shoving the upper keyboard away from the player causes the rear ends of its key levers to be engaged by vertical pieces of wood glued to the keys on the lower keyboard, thus coupling the the two manuals and allowing two or three choirs of strings to be sounded from the lower keyboard.

This instrument is a fine example of the French harpsichord at the peak of its development during the early decades of the 18th-century, the era of les clavecinistes such as the great harpsichordist/composers François Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau, among many others. Heavily influenced by the work of Flemish makers of the 17th century, the later French makers often rebuilt older Flemish harpsichords to accommodate the musical requirements of the day. They extended the range of the keyboard to a full five octaves and converted the mechanism to the classic French disposition of two keyboards controlling three choirs of strings. Rebuilt Flemish harpsichords brought significantly higher prices than new French instruments. It was once believed that this particular harpsichord was originally made by the famous Flemish maker Johannes Ruckers. Recent examination and comparison, however, have led to an attribution to Blanchet, harpsichord maker to the court of Louis XV.  Blanchet contrived to make the instrument appear to be a “clavecin à grand ravalement,” that is, an old, Flemish harpsichord by Ruckers rebuilt to 18th-century French standards.

The Belle Skinner Collection                              
Accession No. 4876.1960

Musical Example:

Davitt Maroney performing Prelude VI from L'art de toucher le clavecin, by François Couperin (1668-1733)
Yale University Collection of Musical Instruments, 5 October 2008