A Dynasty’s Autumn Michael Johnson: The Last of the Ruckers

I was a bit surprised recently to find a handsome coffee-table booklet in my Berlin mail box. Gardiner Houlgate, The Bath Auction Rooms, had published and sent to me a pre-sales catalogue of the collection of keyboard instruments of the late Christopher Hogwood (1941-2014), harpsichordist, musicologist and conductor extraordinaire. Almost not wanting to open it, as if it were irreverent in a way, I left it laying unopened in its plastic envelope for a few days. I had only met Chris once. He was one of those most memorable of people, one of the really huge giants of music who still had a turn of humour which had you loving him in only minutes after meeting him.

After a few days of putting it off, I finally opened the package. What a wonderful and beautiful treat. The catalogue, rather than coming across as a mercenary necessity, it was so thoughtfully done, so delightful in the carefully presented photographs and texts that the booklet itself is like a memento, a tribute, a kind gift made to me by an auction room I had never heard of before.

But as I mused on Chris’ life, his contribution to the musical world and to the Early Music world especially, as I fawned over the delicious photos of instruments he was so fortunate to have owned, I contemplated his later years and those of some of the other musical greats of our time. As much as conductors or performers are so prominent in the public eye, what of all the people who made the instruments we have come to rely upon today?

Chris was a pioneer throughout his life. He brought the Early Music Revival in the UK to a peek back in the 80s and 90s. Along with him came a plethora of other musicians and with them the incumbent industry of instrument builders. Before these pioneers came along the harpsichord had devolved into a large mechanical keyboard instrument more suited for Frankenstein movie soundtracks than serious playing. Dreadnaughts, as we called them, were heavy instruments to carry, heavy to play and there just wasn’t much bang for your buck with these guys.

All the new harpsichordists, inspired by people like Chris, now needed new harpsichords, real harpsichords, not the brain-numbing, finger-numbing, humbug dreadnaughts they had been lumbered with before. Not many harpsichordists were fortunate to be able to own antique instruments from the 17th and 18th centuries. As much as we all wanted to own a Ruckers harpsichord, the Stradivarius of the harpsichord world, it just wasn’t going to happen for most of us. We were just going to have to put up with copies. Thus commenced the pursuit of the Holy Grail of harpsichord building. Who could build a Ruckers like a Ruckers could? The oldest surviving instrument by Hans Ruckers (1545-1598) was built in 1581 and probably sent by Philip II of Spain to Peru as a gift. It was discovered in a hacienda chapel in Cuzco and was thought to be a box of old candles. Ruckers quickly became known as the “it boy” in the world of harpsichord builders. He took the native Flemish harpsichord design and—with slight changes—created out of it the most sought after keyboard instruments of all time. Before he died he taught his sons, Ioannes and Andreas who, in turn, taught their nephew, Jan Couchet and son, Andreas II Ruckers respectively.

Most players today think that was it. That was the end of the whole gig. The wine had stopped flowing. Far from it, folks. John Broadwood, whose firm of Broadwood and Sons is still making sought after pianos today, worked for—and learned his trade from—Burkat Shudi. Shudi was a Swiss joiner who came to London and worked in the harpsichord building workshop of Hermann Tabel (d.1738). James Broadwood, son of the famous piano builder John Broadwood, wrote in 1838 that Tabel had learned his trade in turn from the successors of the Ruckers workshops in Antwerp. Even though Broadwood started to make more and more pianos and fewer and fewer harpsichords, the tradition of building keyboard instruments traceable back to Hans has survived into the present day.

And so it happened, many centuries later, that a young 19 year old London-born man by the name of Michael Johnson (b. June 1934) showed up one day in 1950 at Broadwood’s Hanover Road showroom in London as an apprentice. Evacuated from London during World War II, Michael was raised by an aunt in Peterborough, Northamptonshire. His aunt’s family introduced him to the piano and Michael started to learn to play the piano as a young man.

After nine years learning the trade with Broadwood and Sons (including caring for and tuning the piano once owned by F. Chopin), Michael set up on his own initially as a piano technician, working for some of the more prominent performers of the time, including George Malcolm, Harold Craxton and Maurice Cole. But after restoring a Blüthner grand piano for Julian Bream, the famous lutenist, he was introduced to David Rubio of harpsichord building fame and moved into Rubio’s shop which Bream had built for him, once Rubio vacated it. After a year in Rubio’s former workshop, and after a life long interest in Early Music keyboards had been kindled, he decided to concentrate exclusively on building harpsichords. Michael set up shop on is own in 1969 building harpsichords in a world where historical instruments were largely forgotten.

After some initial hiccups and a few prods to his ego, he was encouraged to look more closely at historical building designs and managed to work on or/and measure important instruments by builders such as Aelpidio Gregori, Jacob Kirckman who, himself, had worked with old man Broadwood back in the 18th century, and a Couchet/Taskin instrument.

Concentrating on only one design, in order to fully master it, Michael ploughed ahead while looking over his shoulder to his piano-world grandfathers. Michael was a product of John Broadwood and Sons knowledge, he inherited their tradition and methods, ethics and mindset of working from the past but looking always at the present and the future. He had decided to choose the most successful harpsichord building tradition the world had known, that of the Ruckers Dynasty.

And tracing his lineage back through his teachers through Broadwood and Sons back to James Broadwood and James’ father, John. Through John back to Shudi and Shudi’s teacher, Tabel, we arrive back in Antwerp and the successors of the Ruckers harpsichord shop. How fitting then, that a harpsichord builder who has directly inherited his trade from an unbroken line going back to Hans Ruckers in the 16th century, would choose to build the most appropriate of designs, the Ruckers design.

Michael’s instruments were based upon those of his forefathers Hans, Iohannes and Andreas Ruckers, but he decided not to copy their work. Just as Hans Ruckers had studied and improved upon instruments he saw in Antwerp Michael, with modern tools and modern customers, prudently decided to improve the building processes, work to lower tolerances and to learn from how the old instruments had fared over 450 years to know what to avoid in his subtly changed designs. What was the point of using old methods or tools when modern ones did the job better with no tonal loss to the instruments? At their height the Ruckers shop is thought to have been churning out about 40 instruments a year for world-wide sale. No wonder that todays guys, with only four or five orders to complete per year, could take a little more time to get things a little more tidy. Sure, Ruckers had more guys working for him than Michael, but it was still all about mass-production for the Ruckers shop.

Unlike most modern harpsichords today, a Johnson isn’t simply an exact copy of what the ancients had done. Not that copying is a cop out either, a great deal of research has to go into uncovering exactly what they did and with what materials. But copying does run into a number of big dangers; it is very easy to misunderstand what looks to be obvious enough. Working backwards is not always the fastest way to work forwards. Michael’s approach was to work more towards creating a whole suite of elements which worked together through experimentation and experience rather than put together potentially unmatched elements because they appeared to us, hundreds of years after the fact, to have been what they did. Copying mistakes was not on Michael’s To-Do list.

Until quite recently we did not have music wire which resembled what was used throughout the Renaissance and Baroque. Putting modern wires on old designs, for example, can only get you so close to—or so far from—what they did back when. It’s all fine and well to use the right diameter of bridge pins but if they are of a completely different alloy how effective is it? Copying is a bit hit and miss until such times as every last element of historical design can be replicated, including the quality of the logs the planks were cut from. This begs the question of whether or not a builder today should make instruments which are better engineered than the historical instruments were or if they should be as sloppy as many of the historical builders were. I would think it is hard to justify doing something intentionally poorly just for the sake of pedantic historicity.

The result of Michael’s unique approach is a harpsichord of literally incredible workmanship and wood-engineering which is almost unfathomable in its accuracy. The design, with string lengths, plucking points and most other tonal elements of the design intact, is streamlined and lightened to increase tonal response even over the remarkable Ruckers originals themselves. He managed to create an expressive touch to the keyboard and an unprecedented sustain to the instrument’s resonance. The plectra issue was approached anew and a new design was created to make installing and voicing a Johnson as straight forward as possible, reducing the amount of technical after-care to almost zero. The careful and minute adjustment to the plucking mechanism of his instruments removed unwanted impetus to the beginning of the notes and allowed for a smoother and purer overall sound. The touch of a Johnson is like the response of a Bentley sedan.

Michael’s knowledge and training paid off quickly. Johnson harpsichords shot skyward in popularity almost immediately. The mega names of the harpsichord world called upon him to provide instruments for trade fairs, celebrity concerts, masterclass summer schools and solo music recordings. Quickly, educational establishments were rushing to place orders and have his instruments for their students to be taught with.

Johnson harpsichords took on an almost mystical and mythical reputation at the same time. I remember visiting a harpsichord technician in London in the late 80s who had two instruments. One was a Johnson. After hearing me play through some Bach like Rachmaninoff with too much coffee on the other instrument he was quick to forbid me to touch his Johnson. Living in the United States for much of my adult career I didn’t touch my first Johnson until this year in Berlin. And yes, it was a mystical and mythical experience to say the least. Mind blowing what those “boxes” (as he calls them) can do!

Having now around 200 instruments to his name which litter the world from Australia to Taiwan, Norway to Italy and most places between, would he change anything? “I do not think I would change anything were I to start again today, I think I made the right choice of design school in following the Ruckers concept. My last instrument was completed February 2014 and my time is now spent servicing previous work and making and trying to develop new plectra. In ones eighty first year you really do not know what’s next, the important thing is to enjoy now and not become idle. Not a chance of that with me and yes I am enjoying life.”

The Johnson I have learned to know and hold dear as a friend, turned out to be a most caring and gentle person, always willing to share what he has learned or experienced. A humble and charming man, as sharp witted as a fox and as nimble as its prey, at 80 years of age. These personal distinctions and his life-long love affair with his creations, shine through his instruments and the joy they were made with is reflected in the joy they impart to all who play or hear them.

But all fairytales have an ending. Michael is now semi-retired and no one will take his place. All too often I hear people saddened that no more Johnsons are being “born”. And as I reflect back again to Chris’ keyboard instruments on sale, his contribution to history, I’m saddened also a little that The Last of the Ruckers, Michael Johnson, builds no more. I’m personally saddened also never to have owned a Johnson, and knowing I probably never will. But his boxes are in good hands and will be loved and cherished for as many hundreds of years as Hans’ were.

A 435 year dynasty, glorious in its dignified autumn colours, slides gently into the past like a masterful Atlantis sliding gently under the waves for future generations to know only by the wonders it left behind. But for now it’s time for Michael to enjoy the well-deserved quiet after the storm of 40 years of giving. Thank you, Michael, thank you for all of it.

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