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Saturday, 19 May 2007


Steve Bates

What a treat! I am envious, Michael. Seventeenth-century French music is more subtle than its busy, "noodly" Italian counterpart; it partakes of a lute style, depending on the long, sustained notes to create interesting harmonic interactions, including a lot of well-placed and late-resolving dissonance. Listen to a recital of such music, and you'll not be hungry again an hour later.

As to the instrument, without knowing exactly what it is, I can tell you that (to everyone's regret) yes, the strings most likely had to be replaced. Photomicrographs of old strings show a pattern of metal distribution in the alloys that cannot easily be replicated with conventional wire-making techniques today, though of course people do try, and the few old instruments preserved in nearly ideal conditions have led today's builders to think that string-making techniques have an actual impact on the sound. Some jacks and registers may have survived, but many jacks probably had to be replaced, especially if they ever got wet. Plectra? the genuine quill variety tend to break at a rate of one or two per concert anyway; they cannot be expected to last 300 years.

Enjoy your Organ Day tomorrow!


They played a little bit of everything. Some Italian, some French, even a bit of Bach. Went back to the museum this morning after Mass and before Organ Day, and got the 411 on the instrument. It's attributed to the Rückers workshop and comes from the chateau Condé-en-Brie, where its last owner was the Count Xavier de Sade. (No idea if he was related to the famous marquis.)

It was restored circa 1980 or afterward by Christopher Clarke to an unequal temperament. The original instrument from 1624 had two keyboards, one register at 8 feet and one at 4. Sometime in the second half of the 17th century, the two keyboards were equalized and a second 8-foot register added. It was at that time that the current cover painting (of the contest between Pan and Apollo) was added.

I did get a look at the wires last night--all shiny new steel. Couldn't say about the jacks, but if they're still original (or original-ish), the action looked awfully smooth. The player was a petite Chinoise, and she didn't seem to have any problems getting the keys to work. Don't think she broke any plectra, either--or at least not that I could hear.

Steve Bates

Thanks for the details, Michael.

Ruckers harpsichords were much prized in France, and often refitted by the well-known French shops in the way you describe, adding a manual and an extra 8' register (or 4' as needed), sometimes physically widening the whole instrument to accommodate the extra compass required of later French music. Among two-manual harpsichords, such Franco-Flemish reworks (there's a French word for the process that escapes me at the moment) are my strong personal preference for sound, especially in solo music. For my own purposes, mostly accompaniment of small chamber ensembles, I have a smaller Flemish-style instrument made in 1979, one manual, 8'x8'; you may think of it as the "before" to the "after" of the instrument you heard.

BTW, temperaments are not built-in but are set by tuning the instrument, and are usually chosen appropriate to the literature being performed. As far as I can tell, modern equal temperament (a specific example of well-tempering) was practically never used before the 19th century; Bach's famous "Well-Tempered Clavier" was written to be played using any temperament that sounded satisfactory in all 24 keys. There are plenty of very useful temperaments that don't, and there was plenty of debate even in Bach's day about the merits of various temperaments. Later literature, including Mozart's works, sound better in another class of temperaments called meantone, in which there are six "good" keys adjacent around the circle of fifths. In a meantone temperament, those six tonalities sound great (far better than in equal temperament); the rest are rather gamey... but unlike Bach's music, Mozart's rarely ventures into those more extreme tonalities, and never by accident. If you're curious about the difference in sound, look at the liner notes of CDs of harpsichord or fortepiano music (you do still buy CDs, don't you? personally, I can't live without liner notes) to see if there is information about the temperament used. You'll be surprised at the differences among temperaments.

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