The Ruckers Symposium in Händel-Haus, Halle, September, 1996: A Report and Commentary

So are they all, all honorable men.”

William Shakespeare: Julius Caesar

(Marc Antony, speaking about the “honorable society,”
which only a moment ago had drenched their swords in Caesar’s blood.)

I. Purpose of the Symposium

Experts from all corners of the globe were summoned to the Ruckers Symposium at the Handel House in Halle, Germany this past September to reach a verdict on a harpsichord, which evidently had already suffered horrendous things at the hands of man, a fate that few instruments of former times have been spared. The issue was clearly understood from the outset: Should the Ruckers harpsichord be “restored,” that is, made playable again, or should it be merely “conserved,” which entails the arrest of the processes of deterioration without any consideration towards making the instrument playable?

In the evening the company gathered in a narrow hall around the four original harpsichords that had been brought to Halle for purposes of illustration during the symposium: the Ruckers of 1599 belonging to the hosts (the Handel House in Halle); another partially restored Ruckers from the Leipzig Museum; an interesting and unique transposing Spanish harpsichord (Bartolomeu Risueno, Toledo, 1664); and a “ravalé” double manual instrument (Andreas Ruckers, Antwerp, 1628). In the polite and relaxed atmosphere of that evening we were treated to a sampling of the sounds of these noble instruments in blissful ignorance of the heated controversy that would characterize the following two days.

II. The Ruckers Harpsichord of 1599

Considering the grave responsibility for the extensive surgical intervention foreseen by the director of the Handel Museum for the Ruckers harpsichord, the hosts from Halle strove for completeness in the list of invited experts: the museums of Antwerp, the Hague, Paris, London, Edinburgh, Colmar, Leipzig, and Berlin, as well as the Metropolitan Museum (NY), the Smithsonian (DC), and Vermillion (SD), restoration ateliers, harpsichord builders, and private collectors. All were invited to the podium to share their views. The denouement unrolled with precipitous speed: Sermons were delivered on the sins of past restorative interventions (not only from time immemorial; even respectable “restorers” of our day, like Hubbard and Dowd, committed grievous errors on these old, defenseless instruments), while other restorations were declared exemplary. Nevertheless, since the vast majority of the experts subscribed unequivocally to the conservationist theory, the blessing on the project of restoration — so avidly sought by the director of the Handel Museum — was withheld. Concisely stated, the verdict read: “Hands off, strings off!” (to reduce the tension on the soundboard). Regrettably, the arguments put forth by these experts were convincing: The present dimensions would tolerate only brass stringing, the keyboard as is implies a transposition not usable in concerts today, etc. Many alternative suggestions were voiced, among which were:

1) that the harpsichord be exhibited as is, with a modern playable copy next to it; or

2) that a partial restoration of one register, one keyboard, etc., be done.

Two of the comments merit our consideration because of their implications. In a passionate exhortation, Michael Latcham (The Hague) focused our attention on the fact that so many instruments rotting in the cellars of our museums are in dire need of conservation if they are to be saved at all. The deterioration must be stopped on all instruments before one muses about possible restorations of one or another of these. Laurence Libin’s (Metropolitan Museum) question is also to be weighed seriously: How should a museum justify its existence to the taxpayers, who wish to experience something “genuine” in the hallowed halls of our museums? Should not at least those instruments that merit restoration from a technical as well as an acoustical point of view be made playable?

Halle is a clear case. If only the director of the museum would recognize the fact that the Ruckers harpsichord is not — as he opines, contrary to expert consensus — the most valuable instrument of his museum, he could turn his attention to the truly valuable Italian harpsichords and many other instruments in his collection, which could be made playable with a minimum of investment.

III. From the Musician’s Point of View

Here I write what I dared not utter before the multitude of anointed experts. Namely: How would it be for our museums of fine arts if they were obliged — due to the generally recognized detrimental effect of light on the pigments and substance of the prized old paintings — to conserve their da Vinci’s, Raphael’s, and Van Dyck’s behind protective dark curtains and to display on the walls only replicas executed by slavish copyists? Who would be enticed to visit such museums? Furthermore, is not the benevolent, soothing, harmonious sound of these instruments exactly what is worthy of cultivation and preservation in a museum? Or would the defenders of conservation (who, you all know, are “honorable men”) wish to degrade these harpsichords, now robbed of their voice, to attractive pieces of furniture from magnificent residences from times gone by? Another argument also uttered at the symposium, that these instruments should be conserved for mankind one thousand years from now, fails to convince, particularly in view of the past developments. Who would believe that the courtly entertainment of Charlemagne would utterly fascinate a concert goer of today? Or, should we bid the Pharaoh’s orchestra on stage (notwithstanding the fact that those “hip-swingin’ gals” may have more in common with modern concert practices than our own classical heritage!)? Such would be at most an interesting curiosity, but not a living tradition for us.

IV. The Twilight of a Tradition

On the contrary, if we suspect in modern man — in at least some very few of us — the sensitivity to be spontaneously set in synchronous motion, both in spirit and soul, with those still softly vibrating waves from that phenomenologically unexplainable powerful, humanistic explosion of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance (which even empires and world wars have failed to smother wholly), then we believe that we recognize in him the perpetuation of this living tradition, which is in danger of disappearing from this world in the foreseeable future. The bridges to the past are fragile enough: The composers may be deceased, yet the thoughts they wished to bequeath to us live on in their scores. The instrument makers evoked the secrets of their trade to breathe the inspiring fascination of sound into their creations. If this feeble alliance between the contemporary restorer, the musician, and the attentive listener should grant a temporally limited extension of earthly existence to that great humanistic tradition, is it acceptable to interrupt the connection between, on the one hand, those old instruments and their heritage, and, on the other, the musicians and their public of today?

V. An Unexpected Final Word, “Sett to Musicke”

On the final evening of the symposium, the vehement, passionate, fervent debates subsided as we proceded to the final concert, full of thoughts and impressions that gradually receded to make way for that requisite serenity of the attentive concert listener. Destiny had it that the evening’s soloist, Bob van Asperen, faced with the choice between the modern Ruckers copy (which had served the three previous musical offerings) and the old Ruckers from Hasselburg, opted for the latter. Thus it came to be that the last word of this symposium was given to this venerable veteran. One would search in vain for words to describe adequately our experience that evening; even Edgar Allen Poe’s spine would not have been impervious to chills in awe of the miracle that ensued. For, as soon as the first keys on that instrument were touched, the hall seemed to fill with an intoxicating sound of wondrous resonance, which did not abate until the sound of the last note had vanished. Suddenly I understood: It was as if the four harpsichords had been listening silently all along to what we humans had been saying about them and their fate. That is why, as their last hope, they entrusted the Beurmann Ruckers with their message. And he spoke, full of dignity, full of eloquence:

O piteous spectacle! / O woeful day!
O Judgment, thou are fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason!
–Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Which of us dares now, in view of this, to be the first to sink his sword into such a noble throat? Ask yourself whether it is man — with wood, wire, and glue — who slows down the decay of these instruments or whether these instruments — through the revelation of the universal, pure Concord — slow down the decay of man.

Let us listen to them yet a little while.

Friends, lend them your ears!”

José Vázquez is a professor of viola da gamba at the Vienna University for Music and the Performing Arts.

See also: words of wisdom | shapes of viols