Rafael Puyana on the three manual harpsichord of 1740 by Hieronymus Albrecht Hass

This instrument is unique in being the most elaborate eighteenth-century harpsichord to have come down to us. The allegorical scene painted inside its lid – probably representing Dido and Aeneas or Paris and Helen – suggests it was intended as a royal gift. It represents a knight in armour appearing in a cloud above the very same harpsichord being represented (presumably by Hass himself and his son) to an enthroned lady who marvels at the sight. Signed and dated on its soundboard, this magnificent instrument represents the zenith of German harpsichord making. It is one of the few surviving original instruments to have the low octave register known as the 16- foot stop, plus a 2-foot register sounding from middle C down through the lower part of the third keyboard.

From the point of view of musical interpretation it is significant to note that when it was made, J.S. Bach, Domenico Scarlatti and G.F. Händel were still alive. The appearance of such an instrument in the first half of the eighteenth century testifies to the growing demand for technical devices to obtain a variety of colours and contrasts, one of the goals that harpsichord making gradually sought to achieve throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. And this remains unquestionably true of the German tradition from a very early period. From the first known German harpsichord (Hans Müller, 1537) which has a lute register (nasard) up to the large instruments of the Hamburg School and the closely related Kirckmans and Shudi in England, German harpsichord making sustains a unity of thought, an adherence to a tradition and a conception of sound akin to that of the organ. German harpsichords, including those rather hastily attributed to Harras and Mietke, cultivate colour contrasts and are designed to render polyphonic music with great clarity. Their undeniably beautiful sound, though totally different in character, is on a par with that of the admirable Italian, Flemish and French seventeenth – and eighteenth – century instruments. Curiously, seventeenth-century French harpsichords of the Des Ruisseaux and Thibaut de Toulouse type, which like the German instruments also descend from early Italian harpsichords, and pursued a related sound ideal, are largely exempt of Flemish influence. A preference over the last fifty years for reproduction of Flemish and French harpsichords has caused the German tradition to be unjustly left aside in the twentieth-century revival of early keyboard instruments. Since the publication in 1965 of Frank Hubbard’s Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making, and until recently, modern harpsichord makers and specialists banished an important school of sound-thought in harpsichord construction, relegating German and English instruments to oblivion in the museum reserves. When attempts were made to restore them, the results, out of ignorance and a lack of conviction, were unsuccessful. But of late a fresh curiosity has awakened about German harpsichords, stemming from the search for the appropriate sound and keyboards for the interpretation of J.S. Bach’s and Scarlatti’s works. If one cannot as yet prove that these masters knew the great harpsichords of the German School, one can at least be certain that they would not have relished the seductive sounds of harpsichords by Pascal Taskin (1723-93) and even less their present-day copies emasculated by the austere removal out of musicological prudery of genouillères and boîte d’expression, on which their works are now so often performed. As he told me, Frank Hubbard considered sound-colour “vulgar and unnecessary” with the result that many harpsichord makers, together with the northern school of harpsichord playing, have since come to accept without question the limitations of such instruments.

Technical Specifications of the 1740 Hieronymus Albrecht Hass Harpsichord

Three manuals (keyboards), each with a range of five octaves, FF to g3, chromatic without the FF# in the bass.

Five rows of strings: two 8′, one 4′, one 16′ and one 2′ (from FF up to c1).

Six rows of jacks situated between the keyboards and the soundboard in the following order:

Sounding on the top keyboard:

a lute (nasard) stop,

an 8′ with “dog-legged” jacks which plays both on the top keyboard and the middle keyboard.

On the middle keyboard:

the lower 8′ register,

the 4′ register.

On the third or lowest keyboard:

the 16′ register,

a harp stop for the 16′ register,

the 2′ register with a range from FF-c1.

It has been argued that the 2′ is intended to reinforce the bass of the 8′ registers. It can also be considered that, combined with the 4′ or the 16′, combinations of tone-colour can be obtained to be used in interpreting works conceived as if composed for an organ with divided keyboard. This use of the 2′, as well as the independence of the 16′ and the possibility of coupling down to the third keyboard the two 8′ registers as well as the 4′, would explain why Hass decided to add a third manual.The registers are operated by hand-stops. These are located to the right of the wrest plank and to the left of the wrest plank and the soundboard. The lowest (third) keyboard can be pulled out, drawer-like, in and out of the instrument and has two positions: pulled to a dark strip of wood, this third manual plays only the 16′ and/or the 2′; when completely drawn out, the coupling of all registers takes place to produce a tutti of truly magnificent sonorous effect. As previously mentioned, this 1740 Hass harpsichord has been restored twice. The first under the direction of Frank Hubbard in the workshop of the Musée du Conservatoire, rue de Madrid in Paris. This restoration was too superficial and, unfortunately, not satisfying. I had then to wait for more than twenty years for Mr. Andrea Goble of Robert Goble and Son Ltd (Oxford) to accomplish a particularly careful restoration that was to allow me to play this instrument in public and make recordings that would demonstrate the many sound qualities of this masterpiece of harpsichord-making. It has been considered necessary to maintain the tuning of this instrument between A 411 hz – A-415, certainly at a much lower pitch than today’s normal A 440 hz. One feature of this harpsichord explains why H. A. Hass gave a harp stop to the 16′ register. The dampers of the lute stop, when this register is engaged and the dog-legged 8′ is played from the middle keyboard, the dampers of the lute stop produce the dampening effect of a harp stop for the 8′ register. By coupling to the third keyboard the harp stop of the 8′ to the harp stop of the 16′, the player can obtain a contrasting colour effect. This curious way of obtaining a harp (or buff) effect was also employed at the time by other makers – probably under German influence.

An instrument by Joseph Mahoon dated 1738 is at present in the Colt Collection in Bethersden, England. Mentioned by Donald Boalch (Makers of the Harpsichord and Clavichord, 1995 edition, p. 199), there is a label pasted inside the lid describing how to obtain the harp effect by using dampers of the lute stop jacks. This manuscript paper describes six possible registrations. The third is: “Top Keys/Lute Buff’d/Bottom Keys or Buff Stop”. This information was kindly given to me by the harpsichord restorer, Mr. Christopher nobbs.

Decoration of the 1740 H. A. Hass Harpsichord

The outward appearance of this three-manual harpsichord is strong and imposing. The exterior decoration of the case is painted in imitation of tortoiseshell with discreetly gilded chinoiserie scenes. The keyboard surround is inlaid with ivory and tortoiseshell plaques, the latter with encrusted ivory patterns of refined baroque design. The natural keys are in tortoiseshell with arcaded ivory fronts, the accidentals are decorated with baroque motifs, tortoiseshell inlaid on ivory. The sight of the keyboards is truly stunning in its beauty and generates a feeling of visual excitement to the player. The soundboard is richly painted with varied flowers and leaves and a small outdoor scene with three men and a lady. The maker’s name appears in ink on the soundboard: Hieronymus Albr. Hass in Hamb. Anno 1740.

The harpsichord rests on a solid stand that is supported by seven sculpted legs strongly held together by a moulding known as Ruban d’amour.

The central and largest painting inside the lid depicts the same instrument being presented to a lady of rank seated on an outdoor throne who, surrounded by two groups of eleven figures, appears delighted and surprised, with widely open arms raised in amazement at the sight of a knight in armour who appears in a cloud (deus ex machina) above the harpsichord (Farinelli?). At the front of the instrument, a young man looking at her places his right hand on the third keyboard as if to point out the exceptional features of the harpsichord: a third keyboard which plays two unusual registers, the 16′ and the 2′. One suspects that he may represent the son of the maker, Johann Adolph Hass, himself a harpsichord builder. Towards the bentside tail end of the instrument an older man (H.A. Hass himself?) seems to be proud to present the harpsichord to the lady. A group of five musicians with instruments seem to be participating from behind and around the harpsichord in its presentation, and to the right of the painting in a topiary garden, a blonde lady intently watches the main scene from afar. In the centre of the lid, the picture shows a landscape of topiary gardens with statues and several fountains. In the distant background, a building of architectural distinction, a small and beautifully proportioned palace, forms part of the landscape.

Text by Rafael Puyana

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