The Harpsichord

Fig. 1- Harpsichord by Andreas Ruckers, Antwerp, 1643.

The technical definition of a harpsichord is “ a [plucked-string] instrument consisting of a box mounted over legs, together taking the approximate form of a bird’s wing.” (Musica de Regalo)

The composition of the harpsichord is complex and intricate. It includes the main body, containing the pinblock, the soundboard, the hitchpins, the keyboard, and the jack action, as well as the legs and various little parts making it an elaborate musical instrument (Fig. 2). The instrument clavés mostly composed itself of wood; even the keyboards were usually made of wood, instead of ivory. The manufacturing of the harpsichord commenced in the sixteenth century and continued to the seventeenth century. The harpsichord was in high demand until the late eighteenth century when the pianoforte progressively took its place. The main difference between the two is that in the harpsichord the string gets plucked while in the pianoforte a felt hammer comes down on the string, making sounds at different volumes depending on how hard one hits the keys.

Fig. 2- Encyclopedie, Lutherie, Plate XIV, XV, XVI, XVII.

Although different countries established their own guilds for producing harpsichords, the Ruckers family was the main and most renowned manufacturers of the string instrument (Fig. 1).Its monopoly of production led it to be characterized as “The Ruckers’ dynasty.” The dynasty took hold when Hans Ruckers joined the Guild of St. Luke in Antwerp (in present day Belgium) as an expert harpsichord constructor.  His male progeny, starting with his two sons, also involved themselves in the manufacturing of the harpsichord, as they became the super-power producers of the instrument.

Fig. 3- L'accord Parfait, by Jean Michel Moreau, 1789.

The Ruckers’ excellence in manufacturing made the harpsichord the “must have” item of the eighteenth century aristocracy all over Europe, and they were exported to Holland, Germany, France, England, Spain, and even Colombia and Peru. The importance of the harpsichord in the 18thcentury French aristocratic society is showcased in Jean Michel Moreau’s etching L’accord Parfait (Fig. 3) Though not the main focus , the harpsichord sits prominently in the music room. The harpsichord was particularly popular at the Austrian court. It

Fig. 4- Portrait of Marie-Josèphe of Austria, 1762.

Fig.5- L'Empereur François I, 1763.

was built into l’apprentissage of the royal children. The portrait of L’Archduchesse Marie-Josèphe D’Autriche (Fig. 4) drawn for Maria Theresa as a keepsake when she traveled, shows the young Archduchess at a harpsichord. Eleven portraits were done, depicting her children taking part in court activities relevant to their courtly education. The portrait of Emperor François I’s family (Fig.5), exemplifies to a further extent the role of the harpsichord in the Austrian court. In the portrait, it is in the center of the room as it is being played by the Archduchess, while the men of the family surround it and use it as support. The centrality of the harpsichord shows its importance in the daily life of the Austrian Royal Family.

The harpsichord was also part of a grander scheme of things: it was part of the “art of motion.” All aristocratic children were required to learn how to move, sit, walk, and ultimately dance. The music of the  harpsichord gave the motion a script to follow. It gave fluidity to motion as the aristocrats danced at their private balls. As well as being an accompaniment to motion and elegant movement, playing the harpsichord was a leisurely act. Playing was a time of pleasure and enjoyment. The  role of this divertissement in court society is evident  in the portrait of Marie Antonia at the Harpsichord in Schonbrünn (Fig. 6). She is enjoying a nice quiet moment to herself while playing music.  Although the sons of the royal couple were known to play instruments while the daughters sang, the harpsichord was usually the instrument of choice of  young ladies, as  the portraits of Marie Antoinette and Marie-Josèphe show (Fig. 4 & 5).

Fig. 6- Portrait of Marie Antoinette at the Harpsichord, 1769.

Fig. 7- Pianoforte thought to be Marie Antoinette's.

 The evolution of the harpsichord coincides with that of Marie Antoinette. As a young Austrian girl she played the harpsichord (Fig. 5) and as the Queen of France she played the pianoforte (Fig. 7).  Even though harpsichords were no longer being played, they were kept as valuable historic pieces.



Bach, Concerto No.5 by Wurttemberg Chamber Orchestra, Christiane Jaccottet & Gunter Kehr.


Print Sources:

Whitehead, John. The French Interior in the Eighteenth Century. Laurence King Publishing, 1992.

Paris: Life and Luxury in the Eighteenth Century. Bremer-David, Charissa, Ed. Catalog of exhibit at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2011. (Picture)

Marie Antoinette, exhibition catalog for the exhibit in Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, 2008. (Pictures and text)

Annas, Alicia M. “The Elegant Art of Movement,” In An Elegant Art: Fashion & Fantasy in the Eighteenth Century. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Abrams, Publishers: New York, 1983. (Text)

Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, LUTHERIE Instruments à cordes et à touches, Planche XIV, XV, XVI, et XVII, vol 1 (1765)                 (Text and Pictures)

Online Sources:

“Harpsichord by Andreas Ruckers.” National Music Museum, 2006-2010. Web. 1 Nov. 2012. <

1“The Harpsichord in its historical context.” Musica de Regalo, n.d.  Web. 1 Nov. 2012. <>


Harpsichord by Andreas Ruckers, Antwerp, 1643. Sheridan Germann, Boston. The Pressler Gallery. Web. 4 Nov 2012.

Jean Michel Moreau. L’accord Parfait. Smith College Museum of Art. Web. 4 Nov 2012.

Liotard, Jean Etienne. L’Archiduchesse Marie-Josèphe d’Autriche. Marie Antoinette, exhibition catalog for the exhibit in Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, 2008.

Wagenschön, Franz Xaver. Marie Antoinette at the Harpsichord. 1770. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Awesome Stories. Web. 4 Nov 2012.

Sarah Cassidy-Seyoum