Franco-Flemish Harpsichord

Franco-Flemish Harpsichord - Photo: Michael Dollendorf
Franco-Flemish Harpsichord from Zuckermann kit
Grand ravalement Flemish instrument with wooden jacks and bird quill

This Franco-Flemish harpsichord I build from a Zuckermann kit while still in high school. It was the last of about 15 instruments I build all together.

Flemish instruments were thought after in France in the late 17th / early 18th century. Originally they often had a range of just C/E-C''', the typical range of an organ of this period and sufficient for Sweelinck and his students or English Virginalists. But as the music changed it also required a wider range. So a big operation was carried out, called 'grand ravalement'. Usually the top end of the instrument was cut, frame and soundboard enlarged, a third register installed and new keyboards where made for a range from GG-d'''. This is what you need to play Louis Couperin, D'Anglebert and most music composed in the golden period of the clavecin.

Many things have changed in the last 40 years and I was glad to get a chance to revise this instrument and give it a new life. Originally it was build and strung for 415/440 with a transposing keyboard. Now we know that these pitch levels are nonsense for French music. The French chamber pitch was around 400 Hz, the opera pitch and the church in Versailles were at 390 Hz. Also the orchestras in Dresden and Berlin played at 390 or even a bit lower. I decided to set the instrument for this lower pitch level and therefore could string it stronger. There are much better strings available now. Stephen Birkett developed his p-wire, an iron wire that comes close to the original materials, before just once made by Rémy Gug for a few years in the 1970ies. Other wire available (Zuckermann or Rose) in fact is not iron but steal. That process makes it harder and more brittle. The p-wire has been on the instrument for three years now and I never had a broken string. And it sings out with a beautiful tone with a lot of fundamentals. No irritating pling sounds.

The second big task were the jacks. Zuckermann tried to cut costs by using plastic jacks. After about 20 years they all turn into bananas and you don't get any precision from them. I installed Ruckers style jacks made from pear wood with holly tongues and mouse ear dampers that do a fantastic job taking the energy out of the string fast. Also they are very easy to regulate unlike the little flag dampers found in most instruments.

The third task was voicing the instrument in bird quill. I've had my professionally build keyboard instruments always quilled in natural quill and I'm very good and fast cutting them. Also I tried a lot of different feathers over the decades. Now I used the Berlin crow that I collect on my doggie-walks in July when the birds change their feathers. I store them in olive oil for three months and let them dry for another year. Then they are perfect and last for a long time. Natural quill doesn't break as plastic plectra do. They go soft and then you know that they need attention, but the notes still play. You never play a concert and suddenly a note goes missing....

As a High School student I had build up a workshop in my parents house and made keyboard instruments from kits by Carl Fudge, Zuckermann, Hubbert and Heugel. This Franco-Flemish harpsichord was the last I build and sold in 1982 before I started at the university. Two years ago a friend told me, that one of my instruments had shown up on Ebay. It was this instrument, one of about 15 I made. In bad repair I could buy it back for little money. I took the time to restore it, giving it wooden jacks Ruckers style with mouse ear dampers and natural bird quill. The principal pitch is 400 Hz to match my favorite flutes and I can tune it down to 390 for Hotteterre or Quantz projects. It is strung in Stephen Birkett's p-wire, a little stronger because of the lower pitch. A few days ago I finished the paint job in a greenish-grey and gold, inspired by the Couchet in Brussels. I'm very happy to have this instrument now and I'm willing to do concert rentals for other low flute enthusiasts who find it hard to convince their harpsichord partners to tune down...

Franco-Flemish Harpsichord - Photo: Michael Dollendorf
Franco-Flemish Harpsichord - Photo: Michael Dollendorf
Franco-Flemish Harpsichord - Photo: Michael Dollendorf
Franco-Flemish Harpsichord - Photo: Michael Dollendorf
Franco-Flemish Harpsichord | Michael Dollendorf - Alte Musik


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