Early Keyboard Instruments in France

For many people Louis XIV, the Sun King, is the apogee of French Baroque culture. For many harpsichord music lovers Pascal Taskin is the apogee of French harpsichords. Yet Taskin did not start building on his own until more than 50 years after Louis XIV had died. In fact, of the great clavecinistes only Duphly and Balbastre could have known Taskinís instruments. Clearly, the court of the Sun King experienced a different harpsichord than what the 20th century thinks of as typically French. So just what were the instruments like which Chambonnieres, DíAnglebert, Louis Couperin, Jacquet de la Guerre, the young Marchand, and the young Francois Couperin had under their fingers and in their ears as they played and composed?

Perhaps a reasonable idea of what was used comes from records of inventories of contemporary instrument builders and professional musicians. These must be studied with care for several reasons. To start, our terms for the instruments were not the same as those used by the French of that period. Epinette was the term they used for any of the small versions of the harpsichord, and sometimes even for the grand version of the instrument. Also, the bentside spinet, as we know it, was not invented until approximately 1630 and didnít seem to become popular in France until the 1660ís, so any small harpsichord referred to as epinette before that time was what we now call a virginal. After that time, classification becomes a bit trickier, but some descriptions of "square spinet", "two-foot eight-inch spinet", "octave spinet", etc., point strongly to these instruments being small forms of the virginal. When it was not possible to be reasonably sure which form was being described the "epinette" was tallied in the "spinet" column (musiciansí inventories often had more cryptic descriptions than the builders inventories so many of their "spinets" may very well have been virginals). These inventories reveal that builders also did a significant trade in old harpsichords. Sometimes these old instruments were valued antiques (and fake antiques, too) and sometimes they were just old and dilapidated, perhaps taken in as trades or to be used for parts. All these factors were taken into account when culling these inventories for the rough approximations given here. Inventories of four builders during the reign of Louis Quatorze show a total of 9 clavichords, 15 grand harpsichords, 9 spinets, and 20 virginals. Inventories of 22 professional musicians from this period total 7 clavichords, 37 grand harpsichords, 19 spinets, and 3 virginals.

The numbers of instrument types reported in these inventories are at variance with some of our modern impressions of French uses: 1) The clavichord did apparently have a significant, although minor, role in French musical life. The clavichords found in the makersí workshops could have been just discarded trade-ins, or there for repairs, but that would not explain their small, but significant presence in the inventories of professional musicians. 2) It might not be surprising that makers would build more spinets than the more expensive grand harpsichords, but it may be surprising to most of us that so many professional musicians owned spinets. Indeed, as we shall see below, before the period of Louis XIV it appears that the spinet (epinette, anyway) was the prevalent form of the instrument and it wasnít until after Louis that the grand form became the dominant model for the French builders.

It is interesting to note that, at the beginning of the Sun Kingís reign, most of Louis Couperinís pieces used only a keyboard range of C-g2. He wrote only two pieces which needed the larger range of GG/BB-c3(a range sufficient for the music of Chambonnieres and DíAnglebert also). This short octave is necessary for some of Louisí pieces in order to play the tenths required in the left hand which are too difficult for most people to play on a chromatic keyboard. By the end of the Sun Kingís reign the necessary keyboard range had grown to just GG-d3, and this was to remain essentially sufficient even for Rameau until his last works in 1741.

Louis Couperin also only wrote two pieces for the then newly-invented French type of double-manual harpsichord (as distinguished from the Flemish type of transposing double). The fact that most of his pieces were composed for a single manual instrument makes even more sense when one realizes that the instrument he allegedly left upon his death to his nephew Francois was the more common instrument for his time - an epinette. This may also indicate the relative importance of tonal changes he felt necessary in his compositions.
    grand  (epinette)  
Builders inventories  clvd  hpd  spt  vgl  piano
1556 to 1661, the year when Louis XIV assumed the throne and Louis Couperin died  4 3 0 22 -
1661- 1715 Sun King reigns 9 15 9 20 0
1716 to 1733 (year Francois Couperin dies) 0 33 9 17 0
1734 to 1764 (year Rameau dies) 2 36(8) 14 8 0
1765 to 1789 (year Armand-Louis Couperin dies) 0 113 31 8 33
1790 to 1793 (last discovered inventory) 0 37 5 2 32

[the (8) above in the 1734-1764 tally refers to 8 folding harpsichords not included in the count of the 36 regular grands tallied]
    grand (epinette)  
Musicians inventories clvd  hpd  spt  vgl  piano
1557 to 1661, when Louis 
Couperin dies
4 9 4 15 -
1661 to 1715, Louis XIV
7 37 19 3 0
1716 to 1733, when Francois Couperin dies 0 10 10 0 0
1734 to 1764, when Rameau dies 2 13 3 0 0
1765 to 1789 2 5 2 1 1


In 1789 the first builderís inventory appears which shows the piano outnumbering the harpsichord. The one piano which appears in the musiciansí inventories was owned by Armand Louis Couperin, who also owned 2 harpsichords, 2 spinets, and - a clavichord!

In addition, documents and inventories of private citizens from 1737 to 1769 mention the existence and use of twelve more clavichords.

The above gives us some idea about which types of keyboard instruments were played, but not what the instruments were like. For this we have to turn to the approximately 45 surviving instruments from this period (undoubtedly there are instruments I donít know about, but I doubt the conclusions would be significantly altered by their addition to this): 0 clavichords, 28 grand harpsichords (and 6 folding grands), 7 spinets, and 4 octave virginals. It is these numbers which may very well be the source of our impressions of the absence of the clavichord, and of the minor role of the spinet in the musical life of France. The fact that the majority of these grands are doubles may, or may not, also be another false impression of what was used (of the 319 grand harpsichords mentioned in the inventories only 38 can be identified as being doubles by the descriptions given). Some other records, which I do not have, may help us in knowing that. Of the four Sun King instruments in the United States of which I am aware, three are doubles and one is a bentside spinet.

In any case, at least 14 of these extant Louis XIV era instruments have walnut cases, including the famous 1681 Vaudry (harpsichord maker to the household of Louis XIV) now in the Victoria & Albert Museum. Given the characteristics and cost of walnut, it is doubtful that these were painted when new. As in the instance of the Vaudry, however, often these cases were later painted over as the decorating fashions changed. None of these surviving instruments seem originally to have had cabriole legs. Usually the legs were lathe-turned or twist-turned. Cabriole legs were a fashion which became popular after Louis XIV. The French instruments of this period often had features similar to ones found in Italian instruments: bridge sections, use of moldings, keywell brackets, parchment roses, even sometimes soundboard ribbing approaches. This different approach to framing and ribbing would have resulted in a sound significantly different than the lush, sustaining sound of the later Blanchets, Taskins, and Hemschs.

These native French instruments, however, were not the only type of harpsichords used in France at the time. Among the names of the 21 builders I found working in France during the reign of Louis XIV is Faby, born in Bologna, resident in Paris, and very much building in the Italian tradition. He even built a grand harpsichord for the godson of Louis XIV in 1677. Chambonnieres (Louis Couperinís teacher) is also known to have owned a Jan Couchet harpsichord. It certainly was not the only Flemish harpsichord in France since Nicholas Blanchet was rebuilding Ruckers and Couchet harpsichords at least as early as 1701. In fact, it was the interest in the sounds of these "antique" Flemish harpsichords which changed the direction of native French harpsichord building and eventually led to the Taskin model of the French harpsichord.

So if you feel like playing some French clavecin music donít feel that you need to have a FF-f3 double-manual harpsichord to play it - most of the music doesnít need such an instrument. (Of course if you do have one, enjoy it!) In fact, if all you have is a harpsichord with one set of strings and a small keyboard range donít let it stop you from playing Louis Couperinís music on it - it didnít stop Louis!


PYI 1993/99


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