Ruckers transposer 2




1. introduction

2. theories and concise bibliography

3. ruckers keyboards


1. A so-called transposing harpsichord is a rather specific kind of a two-manual harpsichord. It was built primarily by three successive generations of the Ruckers family in Antwerp, during the late sixteenth and throughout the first half of the seventeenth centuries. Even to the most inexperienced eye, the two asymmetrical keyboards stand out. The upper one sounds at Ruckers' standard pitch (believed to be close to 400 Hz). While the lower sounds a fourth down. So, for instance, when pressing the highest tone on the upper keyboard which is a c, it sounds c''''. But when pressing the highest key on the lower it looks like f''' but sounds c''', too. Both manuals show the typical short-octave in the bass, that is key E sounds C, F-sharp sounds D and G-sharp sounds E. Both manuals share the same strings. As a result of the prevailing meantone tuning of the period, there is a problem in pitch when one tunes e-flat on the lower manual (the note-names are usually inscribed in black ink on the wrestplank, following the order of the lower manual). If one plays that e-flat on the upper manual, it sounds a-flat which results in a false major third e/g-sharp. The solution was as ingenious as simple but rather tricky to make. They made extra strings for those notes, which run on small brass plates situated somewhat higher and somewhat to a angle of the original position on the bridge. The tongues in the jacks that pluck those extra strings are a bit higher than normal ones, and so can only pluck the required string.  


2. Over the last decades, some theories have been presented as to why this seemingly strange and costly construction was made.


One could imagine that the routine transposition of a fourth would have been made substantially easier by choosing just another manual. Hence the non-original name 'transposing harpsichord'. This transposition was common. In fact it was dead common, and therefore highly unlikely to explain the trouble and costs it took to built it. However, many more transpositions are facilitated by the ingenious construction. The octave register of the lower manual, for instance, sounds a fifth above reference pitch, and therefore exactly like the quint-harpsichord of 1627 in the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague.


Another theory evolves around a specific use of clefs for higher or lower pitched choirs or ensembles. Keeping in mind that the notation at the time tried to keep any voice within the five lines of a stave, this is a very interesting theory. Only, as far as we know at the moment, most originals were not bought and used primarily by choirmasters (see also the page dedicated to owners/players). It will need more investigation. 


A third theory was formed by Mr. Reid Byers, who sees the whole matter in the perspective of another major part of the repertoire of the time. More and more, keyboardplayers were executing lute pieces on the harpsichord. The lower manual must have been a terrific way of doing just that. Besides, on any original Flemish harpsichord, one could damp the strings by engaging the so-called lute-stop, by which small pieces of leather damp the strings, thereby creating an even more lute-like sound. This theory has all he more charm because throughout the period the builders of harpsichords tried to imitate a lute. It is known that J.S.Bach owned a lute-harpsichord, an instrument like a harpsichord but strung in gut.  


Every member of the Ruckers family used their own system of numbering all the different types of harpsichords that were built at the same time in one and the same workshop. This system clearly shows that the 'transposing' harpsichord was a major part of the whole output. In other words, it was a highly successful model that could hardly have been used only by people who were not capable of transposing the easiest of transpositions.


Finally, more research will have to be executed in order to try to understand the motives for building this instrument and its use in everyday life. By playing, trial and error and keeping an open mind players of today will surely come up with new solutions.  


Concise bibliography:


Grant O'Brien: Ruckers, A harpsichord and virginal building tradition, 1990 (Cambridge University Press)

Nicolas Meeùs: The musical purpose of transposing harpsichord (in: Schriften des Händel-Hauses in Halle, number 14, 1998)

John Koster: Pitch and transpositions before the Ruckers (in: idem)

Reid Byers: article about transposing harpsichords (first published in: Continuo magazine, 1997)



3. Implications of original Ruckers keyboards


The members of the Ruckers/Couchet family were most precise in dealing with all elements concerning the mechanical parts of any instrument. The keys are considerable wider than for instance the more familiar french ones. In fact, the wide sharps prohibit the placing of fingers between them. This for sure has consequences for the way one plays on them, not in the least the fingering. Because the balance point of a key is situated much more to the front of a key in comparison to later keyboards, the harpsichordist has to be more active in the downward motion in playing. This effect is even more substantial in the bass-keys as the balance point there lies even more to the front. A careful touch is being demanded too by the shallow depth of touch. All in all, the player is required to adapt his technique. Since obviously all the major composers and players of the time did play the most difficult passages on them, it is up to us to adapt, and not to alter this. By adapting, one is rewarded by a crisp touch, and the sensation of actual contact with the string, something which is quite unlike playing other types of harpsichord. In respecting the original stringing, all ads up to a big, generous tone that focusses on the fundamental.