Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Instrument Biography: The Virginal

with 2 comments

If you’re interested in the Tudors, you’re already familiar with the sweet little instrument known as the virginal (or the virginals—the S doesn’t make it plural, it’s just that some people pronounce it that way). The virginal looked like an itty bitty upright piano and sounded like a harpsichord. It only had a couple of centuries of popularity, but some of the biggest names in music wrote songs for it.

The virginal is a chordophone, which means that the sound is made by the vibration of strings. It sounds funny to say it because of the keyboard, but the virginal is a member of the zither family. The family of chordophones includes bows (like jaw harps), lyres, harps, and lutes (which includes guitars and violins) on one side, and zithers on the other. The zither side of the family includes simple instruments, like an array of strings across a board like a psaltery, more complex struck-string instruments like hammered dulcimers or pianos, or the strings can be plucked like a harpsichord or virginal.

The virginal was a popular domestic instrument in the 16th and 17th centuries, especially in England, and major composers like William Byrd (1543-1623) and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) wrote a lot for it. The spinet version (more on that in a minute) was first popular in Italy in the 16th century and, by the 18th century, was a favorite all over Europe. One of my favorite painters, Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), painted several portraits with virginals in them, including Young Lady Seated at a Virginal (c1670).

Where the idea for the virginal came from and who built the first virginal isn’t known. Musical inventors of the time were fooling around with keyboards and organs, plucked psalteries, and bowed stringed instruments, all of which were being expanded by families (for more on that, read my blog post Instrument Biography: The Vielle or Instrument Biography: The Recorder or even Instrument Biography: The Pipe Organ). The virginal probably existed by the end of the 14th century.

Germany and England were both influential in the development of the instrument, along with Italy to a lesser degree. Virginals weren’t really musically significant until the 16th century when, due to developments in music notation (for more on this, see the History of Music Notation) and chords (for more on this, see Chords versus Polyphony), their harmonic opportunities could be properly exploited.

The oldest dated spinet version of the virginal that has survived was built in 1493 by Alessandro Pasi (dates unavailable) in Modena. The oldest dated harpsichord is also Italian, completed in Rome in 1521 by Geronini di Bologna (dates unavailable), and is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The same collection also has the most valuable spinet in existence, which is encrusted with nearly 2000 gems, built in 1577 by Annibale Rosso of Milan (dates unavailable). In 1867, that instrument was bought for $2000, which was a pretty hefty sum, roughly $33,000 in today’s money.

Posh versions aside, by the 16th century, everyone who was anyone had a virginal. Henry VIII had 32 virginals in his collection when inventory was taken in 1547. He also had three hybrid instruments that were part organ and part virginal. (For more about Henry VIII’s musical affinities, see my post On Their MP3 Player: Henry VIII.)

Henry’s very musical daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, played the virginal, and many people think that it got its name because she was “The Virgin Queen.” But the truth is that the virginal was already the most popular household instrument by Elizabethan England., and had its name long before Elizabeth was conceived, let alone crowned queen.

To show how ubiquitous it was, let me cite some examples. The virginal was mentioned in a proverb inscribed on the walls of Manor House, Leckingfield, Yorkshire, England in about 1500. The court organist at Budapest played the virginal to entertain the prince at mealtimes in 1501. Henry VIII bought five of them in 1530, and in 1549, the Innsbruck court bought one from an organ builder in Königsburg. By 1582, the orchestra of the Berlin court possessed four of them. In fact, by 1600, virginals were played throughout all of Europe.

Virginals were very popular domestic instruments in the Low Countries (the Netherlands, Belgium, and Flanders), England, Austria, and Germany. In England, they eventually gave way to the spinet and in Germany to the clavichord.

Virginal Structure

A virginal looks like a flat rectangular box with a keyboard cut out near the end of one long side. By definition, it has strings that run nearly parallel to the length of the keyboard. The virginal’s relative, the spinet, has strings that run diagonally away from the keyboard, and the harpsichord, another near relative, has strings that run perpendicular to the keyboard, directly away from the player.

The rectangular shape was the earliest and the longest-lived shape. Italian virginals included a wide variety of harp-shaped or polygonal designs with the keyboard protruding from the main body. Flemish models had a keyboard recessed into the box, which was either centered in one of the long sides or off to the left. The ones that had the keyboard off to the left were called spinetts (notice the double-T) and the ones that had the keyboard off to the right were called muselars. English virginals followed the Flemish design, with the keyboard off to the left.

There was also a double virginal that had two keyboards superimposed and played separately or coupled and played together. This was a Flemish development. The smaller of the two keyboards was called an ottavino, and it fitted like a drawer under the soundboard of the larger keyboard.

In the early models, the player placed the box on a table, or, more rarely, on their own lap. Later versions had their own stands. The boxes were small, perhaps five feet long, a foot and a half wide, and eight inches deep, and light enough that a musician could place it on the table without help.

Until late in the 17th century, the terms virginal and spinet (one T) were used interchangeably in the various countries of Europe. Both terms were used in England, but there, they described different instruments: the virginal had an oblong rectangular case and the spinet was approximately triangular or wing-shaped, with the keyboard at the the left of the strings, accommodating the long bass strings.

The 32 steel strings are plucked by plectra or quills rather than struck with a hammer like a piano. The strings are attached by a mechanical device to the keyboard.

Each key on the keyboard was attached at the far end to a small wooden rod or jack. The upper end of the jack had a hinged and movable wooden tongue that held the plectrum or quill. The plectrum projected horizontally with a hog’s bristle that served as a spring. The hog’s bristle held the wooden tongue in an upright position.

When the key was depressed, the jack rose and the plectrum plucked at the string above it. After the key was released, a lead weight in the bottom of the jack caused the key to fall back to its original position. The wooden tongue turned aside and the plectrum slid past the string so that the string wasn’t plucked a second time on the way down. A small patch of cloth was fixed to the upper end of the jack to dampen the sound.

The plectrum vibrated the string at the point of impact. In a plucked instrument, the whole string vibrates, which is the major difference between a virginal and a clavichord. In a clavichord, the string is divided so that two notes can be plucked on the same string on either side of a dividing node. That means that a clavichord can have twice as many notes with the same number of strings; a virginal has a single string for each note.

The keyboard could be off to either end of the rectangular box, in the middle, or two separate keyboards could be offset from one another. A spinet keyboard with a harp or pentagonal shape had the keyboard occupying most of the length of the rectangle because it housed more strings.

Remember back when I first started talking about the strings? I said that they ran NEARLY parallel to the keyboard. In truth, they’re at a slight angle, which means that the strings ended up being different lengths when strung from one short end of the box to the other. Lower notes, with longer strings, were harder to play than higher notes because the length of the string meant that the jack and wooden tongue mechanism had to move more weight.

The range of the instrument was limited to the number of strings the case could hold. To extend the range, the keyboard was moved to the narrow end of the soundboard. When they put the keyboard down at the narrow end like that, they had invented the harpsichord. Over time, the length of the keyboard and the number of strings increased until they’d invented the harpsichord you’d recognize today.

Virginals usually had only one register (only one type of sound, compared to organs, which could have many different sounds) and one keyboard (except for the aforementioned ottavinos). It was cheaper to make a virginal than a harpsichord and they were much easier to move. A virginal was louder than the clavichord so it could be used both as a solo instrument and in chamber music with other instruments. This made it as popular as both the harpsichord and the clavichord—it was like a combination of the two.

The tone was full and loud, and couldn’t be altered by varying the pressure on the keyboard. That’s what made the later invention of the piano so exciting—the piano could be played both loudly and softly—its full name is piano-forte, which means “soft-loud” in Italian.

The virginal had 32 metal strings (four octaves) that lay nearly parallel to the keyboard. Each string was longer than its neighbor, forming a triangle inside the case, with the long bass strings at the front. In Flemish virginals, the keyboard was placed either to the right or to the left of center of a long side, a feature that determined the timbre of the instrument. When placed to the right, the strings were plucked nearer their centers, producing a nasal tone that was described in 1730 as “grunting like pigs” by one critic. This form was called a muselar.

With the keyboard to the left, in the form called a spinett (with two Ts), the sound was brighter because the strings were plucked near one end, providing more resonance. It had a more flute-like sound than the muselar or the harpsichord, both of which are plucked near the end of the strings.

The double virginal (ottovino) was nicknamed “mother and child” and combined a large keyboard with a smaller one half the size. The smaller one was set in a recess between the soundboard and the bottom of the case, usually to the left of the larger keyboard. It could also be played on its own, but during performance, the child could be withdrawn and placed on top of the mother so that the mother keyboard played both instruments. The child sounded an octave higher than the mother. These instruments were built in the late 16th century.

The Flemish Ruckers family was famous for producing the mother and child version. The child, or ottavino, was placed over the strings of the larger instrument with the jack rail removed, so the jacks of the child instrument, which passed through a slot in the bottom of the ottavino, could activate the strings of the larger mother instrument. The jacks of the larger instrument activated the keys of the ottavino, so both instruments sounded together, giving a brighter sound.

Italian keyboards projected from the case, and the cases were often cypress wood, and quite delicate. Flemish keyboards had the keyboard recessed within a keywell, were often made of poplar, and were sturdier than the Italian instruments.

The earliest Italian virginals were hexagonal in shape, with the case following the lines of the strings and bridges. A few early Flemish examples were also hexagonal. After 1580, nearly all virginals were rectangular, although the Italian models often had an outer case like harpsichords. There are few surviving English virginals, and they look like Flemish instruments, with vaulted lids.

In the muselar version, plucking the string near the middle makes repeating a note difficult because the vibrating string prevents the plectrum from connecting again. Because of this, the muselar was better suited to chord-and-melody music, without complex left-hand parts. It could be provided with a stop called the harpsichordium, which consisted of lead hooks that were lightly applied against the ends of the bass strings so that the vibrating string produced a buzzing sound. Muselars were popular in the 16 and 17th centuries and their ubiquity has been compared to that of the upright piano in the early 20th century. But, like other forms of virginals, it fell into disuse in the 18th century.

Most virginals have between 32 and 45 notes, or four octaves. There were some Italian models with 54 notes, or five octaves.

They came in several sizes. The Dutch organist and harpsichordist Class Douwes (c1650-c1725) mentions instruments with strings from two and a half feet long to six feet long. The pitch difference between models offered by the Ruckers family corresponded to the musical intervals of a tone: a fourth, a fifth, an octave, and a ninth. Pitch assignments have been suggested based on scaling provided by Douwes.

Many virginals throughout Europe were plain wood, but many others were richly decorated. From the moldings on the case edges, through the jack rails, and name battens, they could be adorned with ivory, mother-of-pearl, marble, agate, tortoiseshell, semi-precious stones, and intricate painting.

Flemish virginals often had their soundboards painted with flowers, fruit, birds, caterpillars, moths, and even images of food, within blue scalloped borders and intricate blue arabesques. Many symbols are meant to suggest the Christian resurrection story.

The keys were in two tones, just like today’s keyboards. The natural keys (white keys on a piano) were covered in bone and the sharp keys (black keys on a piano) were of oak or chestnut. They might be left plain, or keys might be lavishly decorated with ivory, ebony, mother of pearl, or tortoiseshell.

Case exteriors were usually marbled, sometimes painted that way, and sometimes covered with marbleized paper. The inside was covered with elaborately block-printed papers. Sometimes the inside of the lid was painted with a scene, but more often, it was covered with papers printed with a Latin motto having to do with morality or music. Mottos were so often applied to the keywell batten that it’s often called the name batten.

Italian virginals didn’t have a standard form of decoration. The outer case was usually decorated in some way, but the actual instrument was often left plain. Cases might be decorated with grotesques (fantastic curly-cues and human forms), intricately painted classical scenes, or marquetry.

Soundboards were rarely painted. Soundboards of both Flemish and Italian virginals were pierced with a rose, sometimes two or three roses in the earlier models. The piercing served no acoustic function but was purely decorative. These decorations were a throwback to the rose in the medieval lute and were never carved integrally as part of the soundboard.

Italian soundboards were constructed by layering pierced parchment, so the final result looked like a gothic rose window or an inverted wedding cake. In Flemish instruments, the rose was usually cast lead that was gilded and often incorporated with the maker’s initials.

The Name

The name virginal has been erroneously connected with virginity and with the maiden queen Elizabeth. But Elizabeth was born in 1533, quite a few years after the first mention of a virginal. The term goes back to the 15th century, seen first in a poem during Henry VII’s reign (1485-1509, and Elizabeth’s grandfather) and nearly at the same time, in a manuscript in Cracow, written between 1459 and 1463, called the Liber virginti atrium by the Bohemian instrument maker Paulus Paulirinus (c1413-1471).

The word virginal is probably related to the Medieval Latin word virgo, meaning rod or branch. Virginals (with an S) is one variation, and like scissors or pants, is often used in the plural.

In Italian, the word is spinetto, from the Latin spina, meaning thorn. In Middle High German, they’re called Schachtbrett from Schacht or New High German Schaft, or rod, both meaning rod.

In French, the word is echiquier from a mistaken translation of the German word Schachtbrett. Echiquier may be where the term “jack” comes from, that describes part of the plucking mechanism lined up in little rows, like chessmen, which is at the root of the word “check” in echiquier.

A harpsichord could be called a virginal in England, a clavecin in France, and a clavicembalo in Italy. But remember, these are relatives of the virginal, not different forms.

Virginal Composers

The “Fitzwilliam Virginal Book” is probably the most famous collection of keyboard compositions, and contains nearly 300 pieces from English composers. It was compiled by a Catholic recusant (for more on recusants, see Composer Biography: William Byrd) called Francis Tregian (1574-1618), between 1609 and 1618. The most frequently represented composers are Byrd, John Bull (c1563-1628) and Giles Farnaby (c1566-1640). No one seems to know why it’s called the Fitzwilliam book, though. Perhaps it was a patron.

The “Fitzwilliam Virginal Book” is not necessarily meant only for the square form of harpsichord, and even within the square type, the term “virginal” was not limited to a single form. The use of the words spinet and virginal at the time were both vague and somewhat contradictory. The word harpsichord is commonly used for the grand piano-shaped elongated form, and virginal or spinet for the upright and square form. But the book was intended for all keyboard instruments, even organs.

The “Parthenia” was the first music ever printed for virginals. It contained 21 short pieces, including preludes and dances by William Byrd, John Bull (c1562-1628), and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), appeared in late 1612 or early 1613.

Although he didn’t write much for the virginal, English madrigalist Thomas Morley (c1557-1602) wrote variations of “Go from My Window” in his Consort Lessons.

Italian Andrea Gabrieli (c1532-1585) wrote Capriccio sopra Il Pass’ e mezzo Antico for the virginal. It was markedly unlike his usual work.

Both William Byrd and Giles Farnaby (c1563-1640) composed their virginal pieces on “grounds” (a phrase that repeats throughout the song in the same voice—in the left hand on the virginal) and extended sets of variations, usually on popular songs, but sometimes on dance tunes or the notes of the hexachord (a six-tone scale, like a mode).

Virginal works grew increasingly complex, culminating with Spaniard Antonio de Cabezon (1510-1566). Cabezon was certainly in England with his master, Philip of Spain (1527-1598), for more than a year, during 1554-1555, when it is likely that he was known to composer John Blitheman (c1525-1591), who was organist at the court of Queen Mary.

The most important English virginal composers were William Byrd (1543-1623), Thomas Morley (1557-1602), Peter Philips (1561-1628), Giles Farnaby (c1565-1640), John Bull (c1562-1628), Thomas Weelkes (c1575-1623), Thomas Tomkins, (1572-1656), and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625). The repertory consists of dances (mostly pavanes and galliards), variations on popular tunes, preludes, fantasias, liturgical pieces (organ hymns and In nomine), and transcriptions of madrigals.

Other big names in virginal composition include:

  • Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643), Italian
  • Giovanni Picchi (c1571-1643), Italian
  • Samuel Scheidt (c1587-1654), German
  • Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621), Dutch

Famous Makers

There were quite a few virginal makers, some of whom were also harpsichord or organ makers. There were three major centers of virginal making: Italy, Belgium, and England.

Andreas Ruckers (1579-c1640), for instance, was a member of a famous Flemish family of plucked string instrument makers that flourished in Antwerp from 1580-1670. They’re thought to have made the earliest harpsichords with two manuals (keyboards) and a single register (like an organ stop, that controls what kind of sound the instrument makes). The first of the outstanding Ruckers was Hans Ruckers (c1550-c1625), whose instruments had a beauty of tone that won them—and him—a lasting reputation throughout Europe. Some of Hans’ innovations sprang from his expertise as an organ tuner.

Lodewejck Grauwels (dates unavailable), was Flemish and from the late 17th century. I found no other details about him or his instruments.


“The History of Musical Instruments,” by Curt Sachs. Dover Publications, Mineola, 2006.

“Musical Instrument; Their History in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Miall. George Allen & Unwinn Ltd., London, 1949.

“Musical Instruments of the World,” by the Diagram Group. Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., New York, 1997.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2010.

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1994.

“The Encyclopedia of Music,” by Max Wade-Matthews and Wendy Thompson. Lorenz Books, Wigston, 2012.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“A Dictionary of Early Music; From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1981.

“Music in the Renaissance,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1959.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.

“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1940.


2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. […] Instrument Biography: The Virginal […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: