Matthias Griewisch 2012, after Ioannes Ruckers 1638



Jan Pietersz. Sweelinck (1562-1621) is universally acknowledged to be the greatest composer the Netherlands ever had. Nevertheless, until recently a complete recording of his magnificent vocal works was lacking. His works for keyboard do enjoy a certain familiarity amongst music lovers. But generally, indeed mostly, the harpsichords used for playing compositions by him and his contemporaries are instruments that Sweelinck himself would not have known.
One of the very few journeys he ever made, as far as we know, was to the Hanseatic city of Antwerp. There he collected a harpsichord that had been ordered by the municipality of Amsterdam. Although the instrument unfortunately has not survived the ages, the recently rediscovered lid has. For sure it originally belonged to a Ruckers transposing harpsichord.
The very fact that Sweelinck went to Antwerp is remarkable, not only because there were some harpsichord builders in Amsterdam itself. Indeed, in very close proximity of the Oude kerk were he resided over the organ, the instrument builder Artus Gheerdinck had his workshop. But it is all the more remarkable if we understand that at the time the Netherlands were in the midst of a long and violent war of independence. In the midst of hardship, Sweelinck, who wasn't even allowed to accompany the congregation during worship, was sent by the calvinistic city council to the catholic arch-enemy in Antwerp. It shows that only the very best was considered to be good enough for the self-confident burghers.



This family of harpsichord makers made numerous instruments of different sizes, pitches and forms. In their lifetime the very name 'Ruckers' began to be synonymous for ‘sheer quality' as far as harpsichords are concerned. At the end of the seventeenth, and throughout the eighteenth century, their work was adapted to changing musical demands. And so they were enlarged, rebuilt, got expanded new keyboards, were re-strung, etc. And of course got an up-to-date physical appearance. Some of these sumptuous and lavish decorated instruments can still be found in museums throughout the world.
The brand 'Ruckers' was such that it was specified in advertisements and newspapers when one was being sold. In that way, sellers could be sure the harpsichord would not only get first-rate attention from the public. But it can also be shown that any instrument carrying the name 'Ruckers' would fetch much higher prices than newer specimens by other builders.   



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 (a’ is 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 system of the period, there is a problem in pitch when one tunes e-flat on 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 it is simple. 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 nut. 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.  

Over the last decades, some theories have been presented as to why this seemingly strange and costly construction was made.
As none of them offers an either complete or satisfying explanation, Johan Hofmann is currently undertaking practical based research in to the matter, sponsored by the Hanze University Groningen. The outcomes will be published in due course. You can also visit for some more thoughts and ideas on the matter. It should however be stressed that the very name “transposing harpsichord” is a mid-twentieth century one. It was never used either by a member of the Ruckers dynasty. Nor by any composer or player at the time!



The members of the Ruckers/Couchet family were most precise in dealing with all elements concerning the mechanical parts of their instruments. 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 from 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 very probable heavy, original, stringing, all ads up to a big, generous tone that focusses on the fundamental.
Concise bibliography:

Grant O'Bien: 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, nummer 14, 1998)
John Koster: Pitch and transpositions before the Ruckers (in: idem)
Reid Byers: article about transposing harpsichords (first published in: Continuo magazine, 1997)