We hear all too often in the harpsichord world of the curious creature that goes by the name of “Flemish Double”. But what is exactly this Nessie of harpsichords? What do people understand by it? People seem to be buying Flemish doubles, recording on them, playing on them in concerts like crazy, and yet almost none of them is actually playing a Flemish double.

Most of us have seen harpsichords with two keyboards, in fact it‘s probably the most prevalent harpsichord image we have in our minds; a large wing shaped piano-like instrument with two keyboards where the white and black keys have been switched round purely for the sake of coolness. Harpsichords with two keyboards were made in most of Europe from England to Germany with Flanders and France between. Romance language countries, Italy, Spain and Portugal being notable exceptions where one keyboard never seemed insufficient. So what‘s this about a second keyboard?

We might perhaps remember that the harpsichord became popular early in the 16th century in Italy. We have surviving Italian instruments from the first quarter of the 16th century. The rest of Europe was quick to pick up on the new fad and, for most of Europe, the early Italian design prevailed for quite a while. Yet, in Flanders, a dynasty of harpsichord makers swiftly took their own direction and their instruments dramatically became the most sought after instruments in harpsichord history, a position they still hold today.

Hans Ruckers (1540s - 1598) was the first of the family to start building harpsichords by simply adapting the Italian model to suit him. The Italians had built their instrument cases from cypress or cedar or – less often – maple. That was not so popular in France or Germany, so walnut was used. Poplar and pine were probably far easier to get ahold of in Antwerp, where Ruckers was working, and poplar and pine was what he reached for in building his instrument cases. But poplar is a much softer wood so the scantlings, the thickness of the planks used, had to be much thicker to prevent warping. Ruckers had to rethink the position and dimensions of the internal structural bars and timbers, the string lengths and decorative elements. Hans – probably more out of necessity than anything else – had started a revolution in the design and construction methods for building keyboard instruments!

The Ruckers dynasty was made up of three generations; Hans and his first son, Iohannes, (1578 – 1642), his second son, Andreas (1579 – 1645), and Andreas‘ son, Andreas (1607 – 1667). The imaginative dynasty that this was (despite the lack of imagination in the name department!), the Ruckers workshop started to incorporate new gimmicks which would set their instruments apart from those of other builders. They built virginals with keyboards on the left, or on the right (called a Muselar), or even ones where a small panel in the front of the instrument could be opened to reveal a pull-out baby virginals an octave higher in pitch which could be placed on top of the larger mother and played simultaneously. They built harpsichords with octave pitched virginals where the curved side would have been, to form a rectangular instrument with keyboards on two different sides. Some of the instruments have “buff” stops, where pieces of leather touch the strings close to the nut, a bridge at the near end of the string, to give a damped lute-like tone. They also installed arpicordium devices which, unlike the buff stops, brought small pieces of metal into contact with the string to make a rasping buzz. The harpsichords were fitted with two choirs of strings, much as many Italian instruments, at normal and octave pitch. Tonal variety was clearly high on the list!

Most intriguingly, they built a model with two harpsichords in one box, one above the other but at different playing pitches, that is with one keyboard, the lower, nudged over to the left by four notes with extra notes added in the treble to fill out the gap. Not only was it nudged over but it also played on the same strings as the other harpsichord but with its own mechanism. Therefore, the lower keyboard sounded one fourth lower than the upper keyboard, which was at normal pitch. So if you played a top note of the upper keyboard c’’’ it sounded c’’’. But if you played the top note of the lower keyboard, f’’’ (which lay directly below the c’’’ of the upper keyboard) it sounded the same pitch of c’’’. This extra keyboard meant that more length was needed in the treble for the strings to allow the additional keyboard’s plucking devices, the jacks, to fit in. The string tension had to be raised, more structural additions had to be incorporated. Yet, the two harpsichords were only able to be played each from their own keyboards. No coupling was possible. And so, the “Flemish Double” harpsichord was born – or was it?

Much as I hate to disappoint, but no, it wasn’t. Sure, we now had left-handed virginals, right handed ones (muselar), mother and child virginals, mother and child muselar, harpsichords with one keyboard and an octave pitched virginals in the bent-side, harpsichords with one keyboard only and – finally – harpsichords with two keyboards. But were the latter “doubles”? By “double harpsichord” today we would probably understand an instrument which, like many church organs, has two keyboards which can be played together by coupling the keyboards, or by playing them individually by uncoupling them or even ‘musically’ by contrasting one keyboard against another. That’s not what was going on with the Ruckers instruments at all. They had two different instruments playing the same strings at different plucking points and at different pitches with two different sets of mechanics to do it. Because of the pitch difference the two keyboards would probably not have both been able to be used within one piece of music.

As much as this idea of tonal variety might have appealed to the Ruckers family, it certainly didn’t to the rest of Europe. France slowly caught on to making instruments with two keyboards but the upper keyboard rather than being in a different position to the lower keyboard it was aligned and pitched an octave higher than the lower keyboard making both useable within a suite or even one movement of a suite. Quickly, devices for mechanically coupling these two keyboards were being brought into the French design and a second set of strings at unison pitch was added to the lower keyboard. Germany was not far behind but put the octave register along with the new unison register on the lower keyboard and leaving the original set of strings at unison pitch on the upper keyboard making their instruments all the more versatile. These, then, were true double harpsichords. But what of the Flemish? What was to become of the Ruckers instruments – so loved for their – tone now that they were being outdone all over the rest of Europe and these “improved“ instruments were running amok in popularity?

Not to miss out on a good thing, the French came up with an answer. A simple, or even a full-on revamp of the old Ruckers instruments would not only get another century or two of use from them but a huge mark-up on the resale price, far in excess of anything any builder was able to charge for his own instruments. The small update (called the petit ravalement) for single manual instruments with outdated registrations was easy enough, just add an extra set of unison strings, squeeze a couple of extra notes into the keyboard and with little or no work to the case you have an 18th century single. The big update (grand ravalement), adding a second keyboard if there were only one, aligning the keyboards where there were two, to sit above each other directly, to make them couple and to add more notes for the new compasses, plus the adding of a second unison choir of strings to bring them up to date with what the French and German makers were already doing, was not quite so easy and meant the instruments had to be sliced up, widened and glued back up like new.

Two builders in France started to specialise in this kind of work. The most famous today is Pascal Taskin (1723 – 1793) followed by his slightly older colleague, François-Étienne Blanchet (c.1700 – 1761). The instruments adjusted by them not only became the most wanted by composers and players in France but influenced the French builders such that a completely new 18th century school of harpsichord building was born. We might call this school the Franco-Flemish school as these huge instruments were made using the basis of the old Flemish masters from the Ruckers dynasty, while having these design principles adjusted to match the newer French 18th century market and its need for larger compasses, aligned and coupling keyboards, more registers etc. This, in turn, retro-influenced builders in Flanders such as the 18th century Dulcken dynasty, a German family who had moved to Flanders and opened up their own shop there. The late English school of Kirckman took the Dulcken design even one step further to produce perhaps the zenith of harpsichord design.

But back to double trouble, the Flemish Double: Is a modern harpsichord which is based upon a Flemish 17th century instrument that had been almost completely musically and structurally re-designed in 18th century France really a Flemish double? We know from a letter that one of the Ruckers refused flatly to build instruments with aligned keyboards in 1637. He would have hated what Blanchet and Taskin were doing to his masterpieces. As to Dulcken doubles, they are true ‘expressive’. They have aligned keyboards – though not fully coupling – and the two keyboards do share one choir of stings and they can be played in contrast to one another. And they were made in Flanders! Is this the Flemish Double? They are probably the only instruments which earn the name. And yet the name “Flemish Double” has ironically become so synonymous with the Ruckers instruments that no one really thinks of Dulcken at all when speaking of them.

Sadly, even though Gustav Leonhardt, perhaps the most important 20th century player of the harpsichord, championed instruments of the Dulcken school few today show much interest in these remarkable instruments. Still, there is a renewed and growing interest in the Ruckers instruments with two keyboards in their original form, the “transposing double“, and players are commissioning them and recording on them. It will be interesting to see what comes of this new trend. After all, it is a bit silly to play Sweelinck on a Ruckers instrument after it’s undergone drastic structural change a century and a half after he was commissioned to buy such an instrument in 1604 at Antwerp – probably Ruckers – by the Amsterdam authorities for the city. The Ruckers of today has little to do with the Ruckers Ruckers knew.

I fondly remember playing a grand piano once in New York made of a Yamaha case and a Steinway action. They called it the “Yamaway“. Maybe we should put on our best French accents in honour of Blanchet and Taskin and call our Flemish Doubles “Blankers“ and “Ruckins“ and be done with it.