ISSN: 1089-747X
Copyright © 1995–2012 by the Society for Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 6, no. 2:

Early Keyboard Instruments in European Museums. By Edward L. Kottick and George Lucktenberg. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. [xxviii, 276 pp. ISBN 0-253-33239-7. $35.00.]

Reviewed by Lisa Crawford*

1. Scope and Audience

2. Content

3. Conclusion


1. Scope and Audience

1.1 As the authors explain in the introduction, Early Keyboard Instruments in European Museums is not the encyclopedic overview of historical keyboard instruments in museums throughout Europe that the title might suggest. The scope of the book is limited by several factors beyond the authors’ control. For one thing, some museums responded to the authors’ request for information more thoroughly and responsibly than others. In addition, the holdings of a museum may change temporarily or permanently as they loan, borrow, sell or buy instruments. Further limitations were self-imposed by the authors, who were faced with the impossibility of describing every instrument in every museum in detail without ending up with a “vast and unwieldy catalog.” Only selected instruments in selected museums are described in the book, and the descriptions are weighted towards the visual appearance of the instrument (decoration, range, disposition, unusual mechanisms), rather than technical/builderly details. The result is a guide that falls somewhere between an informal, chatty introduction to those instruments that the authors decided were the most significant in each collection (a little like the taped tour guides one can rent in art museums) and a brief, well-documented summary of recent organological wisdom about early keyboard instruments. For many years Lucktenberg and Kottick led annual guided tours to the instrument collections of Europe. This book is a natural outgrowth of their joint experience in the field.

1.2 In setting out to write a book of this nature it must have been difficult to decide what level of background knowledge to assume on the part of the reader, and what objective the reader might have in consulting it. If I were planning a trip to Europe to look at early keyboard instruments, this would be an excellent starting point, since the information is organized by location. It would also prove helpful if I were already in Europe, visiting museums that do not provide much information for the public about their instruments (although some museums publish their own guide-books, with pictures and technical information that would be more helpful still). But although I understand the authors’ dilemma, I found the book’s limitations to be frustrating. If my goal were to learn about specific instruments in depth, or about certain styles of harpsichord building, historically and technically, I would need to go to a different set of sources, such as Donald H. Boalch’s Makers of the Harpsichord and Clavichord, 1440–1840, 3d ed., edited by Charles Mould (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995); Martha Novak Clinkscale’s Makers of the Piano, Vol. 1: 1700–1820 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993; reprinted with corrections, 1995); Grant O’Brien’s Ruckers, a Harpsichord and Virginal Building Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); The Historical Harpsichord series, edited by Howard Schott (Stuyvesant, NY: Pendragon Press, 1992); and others in which more complete or more systematic information is offered. Indeed, the authors advise the reader to consult these sources, and when describing instruments they often give specific references to the relevant literature.

1.3 In general, those who visit museums with the express purpose of looking at early keyboard instruments fall into one of three categories: first, players and enthusiasts with some familiarity with the instruments, but no specialized builderly know-how or specialized historical interest; second, builders, professional or amateur, who want to see “the originals”; and finally, those who want to design a self-guided, traveling curriculum in early keyboard organology, or in a specialized area such as French harpsichords, Italian harpsichords, Viennese pianos, etc. For those in the first category, this book would be a good beginning, supplemented by other material. For the other groups, Boalch, O’Brien, etc., might provide a better foundation. Particularly for the last group, it is unfortunate, though understandable, that private collections, which house some of the most important existing instruments, could not be included.

1.4 The authors have coped with their built-in difficulties by framing the material extremely well. Each section of the book dealing with a specific museum begins with contextual material about the collection itself: who the original private collector was, how the collection evolved, even a description of the city in which the museum is located. Each section ends with a list of catalogs, checklists or other published material about the collection. The detailed glossary at the end of the book will certainly be helpful to those who have limited knowledge of keyboard terminology. It also solves the problem of defining terms every time they come up in the text (e.g., clavecin brisé), since this is the type of book that is more likely to be dipped into than read from beginning to end. Sometimes, however, it is likely that a reader without sufficient background will be puzzled by unexplained references. For instance, in the discussion of the Hass clavichord in Brussels, a “third set” of strings (the 4' in the bass) is mentioned. Nowhere in the volume did I find an explanation of the usual disposition of a clavichord, fretted or unfretted; it is assumed that the reader is familiar with the subject.

2. Content

2.1 Kottick and Lucktenberg are knowledgeable and articulate. Their prose is enjoyable to read and their enthusiasm for their subject comes through. Usually their decisions about which instruments to describe demonstrate good judgment about their significance historically, technically, or visually. Of course, the amount and types of detail are not consistent from instrument to instrument. This disparity can be tantalizing. On the one hand, sometimes the portrait of an instrument is drawn in a cogent and concentrated paragraph that leaves an indelible impression on the reader. It might be a question of an offbeat instrument which one would never find described in other literature, like the anonymous seventeenth-century spinet in Salzburg with the complex and unusual (though not unique) short-octave arrangement in the bass, the de Quoco Italian harpsichord with the Cornettzug in Copenhagen, or the three “mystery instruments” in Barcelona. Or it might be an excellent distillation of organological research, for instance, the description on pp. 52–53 of the Ruckers ravalements in Paris, or of the 1560 Trasuntino in Berlin, the 1574 Baffo in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and there are many others. On the other hand, sometimes only a few sentences are allotted to describe an instrument that seems to demand more, like the marvelous Couchet harpsichord in Brussels.

2.2 Throughout the book the tone alternates constantly between an informal tour-guide style and detailed, scholarly prose. The handful of descriptions of sound belong in the informal category; they seem subjective or sometimes just vague. About the large 1695 Nobili harpsichord in Rome: “its bold, grandiose tone commands attention and respect.” The Brussels Couchet “is one of the finest-sounding antique harpsichords we have heard.” The Gerstenberg pedal clavichord in Leipzig was “created for an organist as a practice instrument; but it makes a powerful statement in its own right” (or perhaps this is meant to refer to the instrument’s complex construction). Again, it is understandable that there are so few descriptions of sound—many museum instruments are either not permitted to be played or not restored to playing condition. And descriptions of sound are always impressionistic in nature unless the sound is analyzed scientifically, which would have been impossible under the circumstances. Still, these descriptions do not convey any verifiable information to the reader, who probably will not be able to hear the instruments.

3. Conclusion

3.1 Since one of the primary functions of this volume is to serve as an indication of the current holdings of the various museums (“a snapshot,” as the authors put it in the introduction), it might be a good candidate for publishing on the Web, where it could be easily updated, as might the third edition of Boalch, which is in the same category.

3.2 In short, as long as one understands its somewhat informal nature and its limitations, this book is a fascinating addition to the growing literature on early keyboard instruments, especially for those who plan to take their own self-guided instrument tour of Europe.


* Lisa Crawford is Professor of Harpsichord at Oberlin Conservatory. Among her activities over the last few years were arrangement and recording of the complete harpsichord works of Gaspard Le Roux for two harpsichords with Mitzi Meyerson and leading two instrument tours to France for harpsichord and organ students.
Return to beginning

Copyright Statement

Copyright 2000 by the Society for Seventeenth-Century Music. All rights reserved.

[1] Copyrights for individual items published in The Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music (JSCM) are held by their authors. Items appearing in JSCM may be saved and stored in electronic or paper form, and may be shared among individuals for purposes of scholarly research or discussion, but may not be republished in any form, electronic or print, without prior, written permission from the author(s), and advance notification of the editors of JSCM.

[2] Any redistributed form of items published in JSCM must include the following information in a form appropriate to the medium in which the items are to appear:

This item appeared in The Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music in [VOLUME #, ISSUE #] on [DAY/MONTH/YEAR]. It was authored by [FULL NAME, EMAIL ADDRESS], with whose written permission it is reprinted here.

[3] Libraries may archive issues of JSCM in electronic or paper form for public access so long as each issue is stored in its entirety, and no access fee is charged. Exceptions to these requirements must be approved in writing by the editors of JSCM, who will act in accordance with the decisions of the Society for Seventeenth-Century Music.

[4] Citations to articles from JSCM should include the URL as found at the beginning of the article and the paragraph number; for example:

Noel O'Regan, “Asprilio Pacelli, Ludovico da Viadana and the Origins of the Roman Concerto Ecclesiastico,Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music 6 (2000) <>, par. 4.3.

This document and all portions thereof are protected by U.S. and international copyright laws. Material contained herein may be copied and/or distributed for research purposes only.