The virginals[a] or virginal is a keyboard instrument of the
harpsichord family. It was popular in Europe during the late
Renaissance and early baroque periods.
5.4 Double virginals
6 Compass and pitch
8 Composers and collections of works
9 Further reading
12 External links
A virginal 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
The mechanism of the virginals is identical to the harpsichord's, in
that its wire strings are plucked by plectra mounted in jacks. Its
case, however, is rectangular, and the single choir of strings—one
per note—runs roughly parallel to the keyboard. The strings are
plucked either at one end, as with the harpsichord, or, in the case of
the muselar, nearer the middle, producing a richer, flute-like tone.
The origin of the name is obscure. It may derive from the
meaning a rod, perhaps referring to the wooden jacks that rest on the
ends of the keys, but this is unproven. Another possibility is that
the name derives from the word virgin, as it was most commonly played
by young women, or from its sound, which is like a young girl's
voice (vox virginalis). A further view is that the name derives
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 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 harpsichords, and
not only 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).[not in citation given]
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 instruments so named. 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
An Italian spinetta or virginals after Alessandro Bertolotti, c. 1586,
provided with a false outer case. Note the projecting keyboard, unlike
the inset Flemish examples.
Spinet virginals (not to be confused with the spinet) were made
principally in Italy (Italian: spinetta), England and
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.
Woman at a muselar, by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1672 (National Gallery,
London). Note the keyboard placed to the right.
A typical muselar of the
Ruckers school. Note the keyboard on the
right of the case.
Muselars (also muselaar) 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) wrote 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.
Octave Virginal, ca. 1600, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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 its own outer case, just like larger Italian
1689 Menegoni Ottavino from the Hans Adler keyboard collection.
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
Hans Ruckers stand alone Virginal (1610) from the Hans Adler keyboard
Among the instruments in the inventory of Henry VIII of England, drawn
up by Philip Van Wilder in 1553, there are mentions of "twoo pair of
double virginalles", "one new pair of double virginalles", and other
obscure references. These predate the earliest extant Mother and Child
virginal by 30 years (the 1581 Hans Ruckers), and the earliest
known double manual harpsichords by about 60 years. The term may have
referred to the number of stops on the instrument, or perhaps its
Compass and pitch
The keyboard compass of most virginals was C2/E2 to C6 (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 C2, the bottom F♯ sounded D2,
and the bottom G♯ sounded E2, thus making use of nominal keys that
were rarely used in the contemporary repertory. Some Italian models
ranged from C2 to F6 (54 notes, 4 1⁄2 octaves).
Virginals were available in various sizes. The Dutch organist and
harpsichordist Class Douwes (circa 1650 – circa 1725) mentions
instruments from nominal 6 feet (1.8 m) down to 2 1⁄2 feet
(0.76 m). The pitch differences between the models offered by
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, although
there are no surviving
Ruckers instruments of this pitch, and most
probably none were ever made by his workshop.
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,
mother-of-pearl, marble, agate, tortoiseshell 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. Many of these
motifs appear to be resurrection symbols (Germann, p. 28).
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 (Music is the sweet solace of labour)
MVSICA DONVM DEI (Music is the gift of God)
The Dutch artist
Johannes Vermeer was one among several who produced
paintings including examples of virginals.
The Music Lesson, by Johannes Vermeer
Lady standing at a muselar, by Johannes Vermeer
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),
Elizabeth Roger's Virginal Book 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:
The Mulliner Book
The Dublin Virginal Manuscript
Elizabeth Roger's Virginal Book
Fitzwilliam Virginal Book
My Ladye Nevells Booke
Clement Matchett's Virginal Book
Priscilla Bunbury's Virginal Book
Will Forster's Virginal Book
Anne Cromwell's Virginal Book
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.
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.
Yorke, James, Keyboard Instruments at the Victoria and Albert Museum,
Victoria and Albert Museum, London 1986. ISBN 0-948107-04-9
Virginals at The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Double virginal by Hans Ruckers, 1581
Spinetta or virginal, Venice, 1540
Double virginal by Ludovicus Growelus, ca. 1600
Octave virginal, Augsburg, ca. 1600
Muselar virginal by Jan Ruckers, 1622
Ottavino, before 1668, Rome
^ The plural form may be used to refer to a single instrument.
^ Vermeer: Painting of 'Lady Seated at the Virginals'.
^ "A Young Woman Seated at the
Virginals by Johannes Vermeer".
^ a b Edwin M. Ripin & Denzil Wraight. "Virginal". In L. Root,
Deane. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University
Press. (subscription required)
^ In Samuel Pepys' diary for 2 September 1666 during the Great Fire of
London: "I observed that hardly one lighter or boat in three that has
the goods of a house in, but there was a pair of virginals in it.":
Samuel Pepys (2004-12-01), Diary of Samuel Pepys, August/September
1666 [EBook #4167], 45, Champaign, Ill.: Project Gutenberg,
pp. 18–19 .
^ Dearling, Robert (ed.) (1996) The ultimate encyclopedia of musical
instruments, London : Carlton, ISBN 1-85868-185-5
^ O'Brien 1990, 347
^ Kottick 2003, 490
^ Hubbard 1967, 136
^ Klaas Douwes, Grundig Ondersoek van de Toonen der Musijk (Franeker,
^ Edwin M. Ripin, The "three foot" Flemish harpsichord. Galpin Society
Journal, XXIII (1970), pp 35ff.
Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article
"Virginal". Collier's New Encyclopedia. 1921.
"Virginal". New International Encyclopedia. 1905.
List of Ren