Early Keyboard Instruments
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,
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
|1556 to 1661, the year when Louis XIV assumed the throne and Louis
|1661- 1715 Sun King reigns
|1716 to 1733 (year Francois Couperin dies)
|1734 to 1764 (year Rameau dies)
|1765 to 1789 (year Armand-Louis Couperin dies)
|1790 to 1793 (last discovered inventory)
[the (8) above in the 1734-1764 tally refers to 8 folding harpsichords
not included in the count of the 36 regular grands tallied]
|1557 to 1661, when Louis
|1661 to 1715, Louis XIV
|1716 to 1733, when Francois Couperin dies
|1734 to 1764, when Rameau dies
|1765 to 1789
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
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
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Boalch, Donald. Makers of the Harpsichord and Clavichord 1440-1840.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974.
Brauchli, Bernard. The Clavichord. Cambridge University Press,
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American Musical Instruments Society IV, 1978: pp. 54-105.
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University Press, 1970.
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