Keyboard Instruments

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Paintings featuring harpsichords, virginals and organs offer us a glimpse of gorgeous interiors, amorous scenes and finely-dressed ladies – and the occasional young man too – at the keyboard. Keyboard instruments can also be the key to decoding an allegory, myth or hidden message in a painting. Other exhibits include painted harpsichord and virginal lids as well as original instruments. Loans from the National Gallery in London, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Suermondt-Ludwigmuseum in Aachen and many other museums and collectors offer a delight for eyes and ears. The music room at the Snyders&Rockox House evokes the Jewish-Portuguese Duarte family, who came to Antwerp in the 16th century to flee the Inquisition. They were drawn by the commercial opportunities offered by the city, where they lived in a patrician residence on the Meir, the most important street. Besides an exceptional collection of paintings by leading Italian and above all Flemish masters, from Titian and Tintoretto to Quinten Massys, Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony Van Dyck, the family also owned five harpsichords and virginals. Duarte did not have to look far to find them, as Antwerp was one of the leading centres for the construction of these instruments and two if not more important harpsichord builders belonged to the businessman’s circle of acquaintances. The first references to harpsichord builders in Antwerp date from the beginning of the 16th century. It was between 1560 and 1660, however, that the city was known as the undisputed world capital of harpsichord production. Every year, Antwerp workshops turned out hundreds of harpsichords and virginals. Contemporaries praised the instruments for the richness of their sound and their reliability. The members of the Ruckers-Couchet family were especially renowned for their exceptionally high-quality instruments. Hans Ruckers, his sons Joannes and Andreas and his grandson Joannes Couchet did for instrument-making what Peter Paul Rubens was doing for painting and Christophe Plantin for printing. The Ruckers-Couchet family was not alone: names like Marten van der Biest, Joos Karest, Cornelis and Simon Hagaerts, Joris Britsen and many others also stood for excellent quality. Antwerp harpsichords and virginals did not only sell very well locally, they were sought-after throughout Europe and even far beyond until well into the eighteenth century. A substantial proportion of Antwerp’s harpsichord output, like that of its paintings and ornamental furniture, was destined for the international market. The city also developed a strong tradition in the building of domestic and church organs. Dozens of organ builders were active in the 16th century alone, including the Moors and Brebos families. The Ruckers-Couchet family worked with organs too: Joannes Ruckers, for instance, was responsible for a while for maintaining the organ at Antwerp Cathedral. The rise of the Antwerp keyboard builders was accompanied by a flourishing music printing industry (Antwerp was not the first or the only centre of music publication, but it was certainly one of the most important) and an emerging bourgeois culture in which music too played a part. The original instruments are a lasting testimony to musical life in Antwerp, as are the paintings that explore them as their subject matter. Frans Floris, Jacob Jordaens, Maerten de Vos, de familie Francken, Jan Miense Molenaer, Jan Steen, Gerard Dou, Gabriël Metsu en Jacob Ochtervelt

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