In 1624, three years after the death of the great Amsterdam composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, Johannes Ruckers built a two manual harpsichord that is now in the Musée d'Unterlinden at Colmar (France). This instrument is a fine example of the Ruckers concept: simple and classic in its beauty and perfection. The balance between the clear attack and the resonance makes it very suitable for the interpretation of polyphonic compositions, like the Fantasia Chromatica by Sweelinck. In this Fantasia, which is a compositional and technical high point of the seventeenth century, Sweelinck uses a motif consisting of a descending chromatic quart in an imitating manner. Because of the use of meantone temperament, in which not all semitones are equal, the tension built up by the chromatic scale is very clear.
The original Ruckers harpsichord had transposing keyboards and a string-compass of BB - c"'. The present instrument shows the tradition that was developed in France around 1700 to adapt harpsichords to the needs of the composers of that time. In this way the compass was enlarged to GG.AA - d"' and the keyboards were aligned, the so called ravalement. In this form the instruments from Ruckers's workshop became popular in eighteenth century France and especially because of their resonance they were well-suited for the music that was written later that century. It is therefore obvious that the music of Jacques Duphly sounds so well on this instrument.
As said, the Ruckers harpsichords à ravalement and new instruments built according to these lines were very popular in France. So popular, that one might easily forget that there existed a native tradition in harpsichord building in seventeenth century France. A contribution to the development of this tradition was made by the members of the Denis family who worked in Paris during the time that the Ruckers dominated harpsichord building in Antwerp. Louis Denis was a builder of the fourth generation of this family. An instrument built by him in 1658, now privately owned in Paris, is a fine example of French harpsichord building of the second half of the seventeenth century.
The nasal, lute-like sound, the melodious treble and pronounced bass make the instrument very well suited for the performance of the music by Louis Couperin.
The general and musical culture of the German courts at the end of the seventeenth century was oriented towards France. Therefore it is small wonder that a composer like Georg Böhm wrote music in a typically French form as the Suite. The instruments built by Michael Mietke in Berlin around 1700 show French characteristics coupled in a advantageous way to a case construction that is derived from the Italian tradition of harpsichord building. The shape of the case with its double bending, the disposition, the keyboards and the decoration show a French influence; the lightness of building and its false inner-outer case construction point towards Italian harpsichord building. The tone of these instruments is slender, but very intense and carries extremely well. The dryness of sound and the singing character are uniquely balanced. Because of these qualities the instrument is most suitable for the performance of polyphonic music as well as for music with fanciful toccata-like passages. The alternation of polyphony and running passages is found in the toccatas by Johann Sebastian Bach and Dietrich Buxtehude.
The art of the Toccata that still flourished in Germany at the beginning of the eighteenth century had by this time become obsolete in Italy, where this form had been developed. The Sonata as a musical form was about to conquer keyboard music. Keyboard technique freed itself of its compass limited by polyphony. The sonata-playing uses the compass from top to bottom note in broken chords and running passages and thus points forwards to the vituoso keyboard technique of the nineteenth century. The 555 Sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti are early but unmistakable highlights. In the three sonatas K 490, 491 and 492, which belong together, we already recognize the outlines of what later would become the three-part sonata.
The original of the instrument played here was built by Giovanni Battista Giusti in 1693. With its powerful treble and resonant bass, its dry but flexible tone and richness of sound it is excellently suitable for the interpretation of Scarlatti's colourful music.