(the plural form does not necessarily denote more than one instrument) or virginal
is a keyboard instrument
of the harpsichord
family. It was popular in northern Europe
during the late Mediaeval
The virginals is a smaller and simpler rectangular form of the harpsichord
with only one string per note running more or less parallel to the keyboard on the long side of the case. Many, if not most, of the instruments were constructed without legs, and would be placed on a table for playing. Later models were built with their own stands.
The mechanism of the virginals is identical to that of the harpsichord
in that its wire strings are plucked by plectra
mounted in jacks
. Its case, however, is rectangular, and the single choir of strings, with one string per note, runs roughly parallel to the keyboard. This arrangement causes the strings to be plucked nearer the middle rather than at one end, as in the case of the harpsichord, and produces a richer, flute
The origin of the name is obscure. One theory derives it from the Latin virga
meaning a rod, perhaps referring to the wooden jacks that rest on the ends of the keys. However, this theory is unproved. Another possibility is that the name derives from the instrument's association with female performers, or its sound, which is like a young girl's voice (vox virginalis
). Other views are that the term comes from the word virgin
, as it was most commonly played by young women, or that the name derives from the Virgin Mary
as it was used by nuns to accompany hymns in honour of the Virgin.
In England during the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, any stringed keyboard instrument was often described as a virginals, and could equally well apply to a harpsichord or possibly even a clavichord or spinet. Thus the masterworks of William Byrd and his contemporaries were often played on full-size, Italian or Flemish-style harpsichords and not just on the virginals as we call it today. Contemporary nomenclature often referred to a pair of virginals, which implied a single instrument, possibly a harpsichord with two registers, or a double virginals (see below).
Like the harpsichord
, the virginals has its origins in the medieval psaltery
to which a keyboard
was applied, probably in the 15th century. The first mention of the word is in Paulus Paulirinus of Prague's (1413–1471) Tractatus de musica
of around 1460 where he writes: "The virginal is an instrument in the shape of a clavichord, having metal strings which give it the timbre of a clavicembalo. It has 32 courses of strings set in motion by striking the fingers on projecting keys, giving a dulcet tone in both whole and half steps. It is called a virginal because, like a virgin, it sounds with a gentle and undisturbed voice." The OED
records its first mention in English in 1530, when King Henry VIII
purchased five such instruments. Small early virginals were played either in the lap, or more commonly, rested on a table, but nearly all later examples were provided with their own stands.
The heyday of the virginals was the latter half of the 16th century to the later 17th century until the high baroque period when it was eclipsed in England by the bentside spinet and in Germany by the clavichord.
Spinet virginals were made principally in Italy (Italian: spinetta), England and Flanders (Dutch: spinetten). The keyboard is placed left of centre, and the strings are plucked at one end, although further from the bridge than in the harpsichord. This is the more common arrangement for modern instruments, and an instrument described simply as a "virginal" is likely to be a spinet virginals. The principal differences in construction lie mainly in the placement of the keyboard: Italian instruments invariably had a keyboard that projected from the case, whilst northern virginals had their keyboards recessed in a keywell. The cases of Italian instruments were made of cypress wood and were of delicate manufacture, whilst northern virginals were usually more stoutly constructed of poplar. Early Italian virginals were usually hexagonal in shape, the case following the lines of the strings and bridges, and a few early Flemish examples are similarly made. From about 1580 however, nearly all virginals were rectangular, the Italian models often having an outer case like harpsichords from that country. There are very few surviving English virginals, all of them late. They generally follow the Flemish construction, but with a vaulted lid.
Muselars (also muselaar or muselars) were made only in northern Europe. Here, the keyboard is placed right of centre and the strings are plucked about one-third the way along their sounding length. This gives a warm, rich, resonant sound, with a strong fundamental and weak overtones. However, this comes at a price: the jacks and keys for the left hand are inevitably placed in the middle of the instrument's soundboard, with the result that any mechanical noise from these is amplified. In addition to mechanical noise, from the string vibrating against the descending plectrum, the central plucking point in the bass makes repetition difficult, because the motion of the still-sounding string interferes with the ability of the plectrum to connect again. An 18th-century commentator (Van Blankenberg, 1739) said that muselars "grunt in the bass like young pigs". Thus the muselar was better suited to chord-and-melody music without complex left hand parts. The muselar could also be provided with a stop called the harpichordium (also arpichordium), which consists of lead hooks being lightly applied against the ends of the bass strings in such a manner that the string vibrating against the hook produces a buzzing, snarling sound.
Muselars were popular in the 16th and 17th centuries and their ubiquity has been compared to that of the upright piano in the early 20th century, but like other types of virginals they fell out of use in the 18th century.
Both Italian and northern schools produced a miniature virginals called the ottavino
. Ottavini were pitched an octave higher than the larger instrument. In the Flemish tradition these were often – perhaps always – sold together with a large virginals, to which the ottavino could be coupled (see Double Virginals
below). In the Italian tradition, an ottavino was usually a separate instrument of its own, being fitted in their own outer case, just like larger Italian instruments.
The Flemish school
, in particular the Ruckers
family, produced a special type of virginals known as Mother and Child (moeder und kind)
. This consisted of two instruments in one: a normal virginals (either spinet or muselar) with one (say) 6' register, and an ottavino with one 3' register. The smaller ottavino was stored (rather like a drawer) under the soundboard
next to the keyboard of the larger instrument, and could be withdrawn and played as a separate keyboard instrument. However, the two instruments could also be coupled together, the ottavino being placed over the strings of the larger virginals (once the jackrail was removed), so that the jacks
of the latter passed through a slot in the bottom of the ottavino. The jacks of the larger instrument now activated the keys of the ottavino, so that both instruments sounded simultaneously, giving a more brilliant effect.
Compass and pitch
The keyboard compass of most virginals was C/E to c3 (45 notes, 4 octaves), which allowed the performance of the music contemporarily available for the instruments. The lower octave was tuned to a short octave
, so that the bottom E sounded C, the bottom F# sounded D, and the bottom G# sounded E. Some Italian models ranged from C to f3 (54 notes, 4 ½ octaves).
Virginals were available in various sizes. The Dutch organist and harpsichordist Class Douwes (circa 1650 – circa 1725) mentions instruments from nominal 6 foot down to 2 ½ feet. The pitch differences between the models offered by the Ruckers workshops were by no means arbitrary, but corresponded to the musical intervals of a tone, a fourth, a fifth, an octave, and a ninth. Pitch assignments have been suggested for these instruments based on scalings provided by Douwes. Most modern instruments are full-sized ones at 8' pitch or ottavini at 4' pitch.
Whilst many early virginals throughout Europe were left in plain wood, they were soon provided with rich decoration, which may have contributed to the survival of many such instruments. From mouldings on case edges, jackrails and namebattens to adornment with ivory
or semi-precious stones
, not to mention intricate painting, no expense was spared by those who could afford it.
Most Flemish virginals had their soundboards painted with flowers, fruit, birds, caterpillars, moths and even cooked prawns, all within blue scalloped borders and intricate blue arabesques. Natural keys were normally covered in bone, and sharps were of oak or, less commonly, chestnut. The case exteriors were usually marbled, whilst the inside was decorated with elaborate block-printed papers. Occasionally the inside of the lid bore a decorative scene; more often it was covered with block-printed papers embellished with a Latin motto, usually connected with morality or music. Mottos could also be applied to the keywell batten. Some typical mottos include:
- SIC TRANSIT GLORIA MVNDI (Thus passes the glory of the world)
- MVSICA DVLCE LABORVM LEVAMEN (Sweet music is the solace of labour)
- MVSICA DONVM DEI (Music is the gift of God)
The Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675) was one among several who produced paintings including examples of virginals.
There was no such "standard decoration" for Italian virginals. Where there was an outer case, it was often this that was decorated, leaving the actual instrument plain (typically for Venetian virginals). Cases could be decorated with paintings of grotesques, classical scenes, or marquetry, but soundboards were rarely painted. Keytops could be of plain boxwood, or lavishly decorated (as was often the case in northern Italy) with ivory, ebony, mother-of-pearl or tortoiseshell among other materials.
Traditionally, the soundboards of both northern and Italian virginals were pierced with a rose, sometimes two or three in early days. The rose had no acoustic function, and was purely decorative. Although these were a throwback to the rose in the medieval lute, they were never carved integrally as part of the soundboard. In Italian instruments they were usually constructed by combining multiple layers of pierced parchment, so that the final result looked like a gothic rose window, or an inverted wedding cake. In Flemish instruments, the rose was usually cast from lead and gilded, and usually incorporated the maker's initials.
Composers and collections of works
As has been noted above, the word virginals
could be applied to any stringed keyboard instrument, and since there was very rarely any indication of instrumentation on musical scores in the heyday of the virginals, there are hardly any compositions that can be said to be specifically for that instrument. Indeed, nearly all the keyboard music of the renaissance sounds equally well on harpsichord, virginals, clavichord or organ, and it is doubtful if any composer had a particular instrument in mind when writing keyboard scores. A list of composers for writing for the virginals (among other instruments) may be found under virginalist
. Although the "virginalist school" usually refers to English composers, it would not be incorrect to use the word in connection with some continental keyboard composers of the period, such as Girolamo Frescobaldi
and Giovanni Picchi
, or Samuel Scheidt
and Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck
Out of the some dozen so-called English "virginal books" (see below), only one actually bears the word in its original title: the other collections were attributed the name by music scholars in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries.
A selection of English "virginal books" includes:
- Germann, Sheridan, "Harpsichord Decoration – A Conspectus" In The Historical Harpsichord, vol. IV. General Editor: Howard Schott. Pendragon Press, Hillsdale, NY, 2002. ISBN 0-945193-75-0
- Hubbard, Frank, Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making, 2nd ed., Harvard University Press, 1967. ISBN 0-674-88845-6
- Kottick, Edward, A History of the Harpsichord, Indiana University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-253-34166-3
- O'Brien, Grant, Ruckers: A Harpsichord and Virginal Building Tradition, Cambridge University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0521066822
- Rueger, Christoph, Musical Instruments and Their Decoration, Seven Hills Books, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1986. ISBN 0-911403-17-5
- Russell, Raymond, The Harpsichord and Clavichord: an introductory study, 2nd ed., London : Faber and Faber, 1973. ISBN 0-571-04795-5
- Yorke, James, Keyboard Instruments at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, London 1986. ISBN 0-948107-04-9