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Instrument Biography: The Virginal

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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.


Instrument Biography: The Portative Organ

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Note: A LOT has been written on the subject of organs. In order to make a more digestible article, I’ve split out portative and positive organs into separate articles from the main article on pipe organs, along with short pieces on harmoniums (reed organs), regal organs (pump organs) and electric organs. You may find that some basic information is repeated in each for the purposes of clarity.

The portative organ, also called the portativ or portatif, from the Latin portare (“to carry”), is a small pipe organ that consists of a single rank of flue pipes, sometimes arranged in two rows. It’s played while strapped to the player at a right angle, like a peanut vendor’s wares. The performer manipulates the bellows with one hand and the keys with the other. The portative has no reservoir to retain a supply of wind and only produces sound when the bellows are operated.

Although it took 1600 years, the portative organ went from being the only instrument sanctioned by religious, educational, musical, and engineering organizations, to relative ignominy. It was commonly used in secular music from the 12th through the 16th centuries, and it was used as an educational tool in church and monastic settings for that same period. Even so, by the end of its popularity, this attractive little instrument had been relegated to a conversation starter in private homes.

The earliest specifically instrumental music notation was for organ, probably because, since Carolingian times, an organist was likely to be musically literate—meaning that they could attach a letter name (see Odo of Cluny) or solmization (see Guido d’Arezzo) to specific notes and they probably knew a lot of chant. The small amount of instrumental music that survives from the 13th and 14th century seems to be monophonic (melody only) dances, with notation resembling that of vocal music. Keyboard sources, unlike vocal music, use a variety of types of scores and tablature to document two or more parts for the convenience of a single player. That’s where the two-line piano-style score comes from.

The invention of the organ dates from the 3rd century BCE but it wasn’t until a millennium had passed that the instrument featured prominently in musical life. During that time, portative organs were commonly depicted in the iconography, even though they weren’t front and center like harps or psalteries. By the 15th century, organs had became quite popular and larger organs were placed in churches in at least a semi-permanent position near the singers and with the bellows operated by a second person. These larger portable instruments were called positive organs (there’s a separate post about them).

Portative Organ History

The key element of the organ dates back to Ctesibius of Alexandria (flourished 285-222 BCE), who is credited with inventing the hydraulis. The hydraulis used water to affect the air pressure in a tube and if that’s sounding familiar, that’s because it’s also the system on which pneumatics are based.

Ctesibius’ interest in the hydraulis had more to do with making music than with lifting things up. His organ used the same principle as the bagpipe, with its bellows and multiple pipes, most shaped like a flue, which were the precursors of the recorder’s fipple (a blog on recorders is in the works). Air was pumped into a cylinder that was half full of water. The cylinder had a hemispherical container inside it that forced the air to flow around it and, conveniently, kept debris in the water from gunking up the pipe. The water acted much as later versions’ wind-reservoir would, holding the air pressure steady. The pipes attached to a connecting tube that released the air into the appropriate pipe when a simple set of keys was depressed. Later instruments offered a series of pipes using this same system in various tunings that could be accessed by a series of plugs (called stops) on the side of the instrument.

The organ found its way to Rome in about 50 CE. It was used in theatrical performances and at gladiatorial contests, possibly with horns and tubas. It was probably a domestic instrument as well. There are mosaics showing portatives—then called a hydraulis—from the 1st and 2nd centuries CE in the Tripoli Museum.

The hydraulis enjoyed popularity during the Roman Empire; Roman philosopher Cicero (106-43 BCE) proclaimed himself to be an aficionado of organ music and notorious Roman emperor Nero (37-68 CE) was known to play one. But the instrument’s popularity waned, and 1000 years later, when the hydraulis was brought into France from Byzantium, it was an unknown novelty. Sadly, by then, it was also missing its most important part, the water compressor.

In 187, a Roman specimen was excavated at Pompeii that is about 14.5 inches by 9.5 inches and contains nine pipes, of which the largest is only 10 inches long. Six of the pipes have oblong holes near the top, similar to those made in the gamba pipes of modern organs, making them sound reedy, like the Chinese cheng, which is  a reed organ (a blog post on reed organs is in the works).

In the 1st century, the ptera and the pteron were ancient Roman organs similar in appearance to the portative organ. In the 2nd century, the Magrepha was a Hebrew organ with 10 pipes that was played by a keyboard. In the 3rd century, the hydraulis was played in southern Europe, Byzantium, and the Middle East. This organ wasn’t the same hydraulis of history, though, because that didn’t really survive until the first century CE.

In the late 8th century, a notable Arab singer called ‘Ulaiya al-Mausilki played an “urgan rumi” which was a Byzantine or Roman portative.

In the 10th century, two portable pneumatic (portative) organs were used in the Hippodrome, one accompanying each of the two choirs. The organs for the Emperor’s choirs were covered with gold, and those of the Green and Blue choirs were covered with silver. There was a kind of circus, with chariot races, games, and fights. There were laudes (praise poems) for Caligula, Nero, Domitian, and Trajan that were shouted by the senators and accompanied by portative organs.

These early organs weren’t particularly nice, musically. The pipes were hard to tune, there wasn’t a proper keyboard, and the player pulled and pushed the sliders one at a time to achieve a note. A melody could be played only very slowly with one hand, and more than two notes at a time was impossibly complex.

Monastic churches throughout Europe had these early organs by 1100, and by 1300, they were common in cathedrals as well. In the 12th century, the organ was getting larger and less portable, and substantial improvements were made. Proper keys were invented, but they were so heavy and stiff that it took a clenched fist to depress them.

The first record of portative organs in England is from the 12th century, but they were all over Europe by the 13th century, and soon became one of the most important instruments in both chamber and orchestral settings. The portative became the instrument of secular music, and the positive (a portable but full-sized organ) became the instrument of the church; the organ soon established itself as the sound of Christian worship. By the end of the Middle Ages, the organ was inextricably established in the church.

Toward the middle of the 13th century, miniatures of illuminated manuscripts depict portatives with balanced-action keyboards. Such instruments were used extensively during the 14th and 15th centuries as part of an interest reviving all things classical and Roman.

Organ tablature (written music, but not on the staff) was probably invented in the late 13th century. The earliest organ tablature known is from the early 14th century, and is called the Robertsbridge fragment. In this British fragment, all 12 notes of the octave are already required—remember, music was predominantly modal (see The History of Music Notation and Musical Modes, Part 1 (Church Modes) for more on this).

Once they developed a keyboard, portatives were lithe and easy to play, and they produced a clear, mellow tone, somewhat like a flute. They were technologically interesting, and along with their sweet sound and portability, they became popular during the Renaissance when mechanical instruments and inventions were all the rage. (See Instrument Biography: The Hurdy-Gurdy for more on this rage.)

The portative was pretty much gone from the music scene by 1500. Before it went, though, it developed a chromatic keyboard with two ranks of keys. It was too small and too quiet to contribute to popular music—polyphony was all the rage by then—because it had to be played with one hand.

The portative was even less appreciated during the Classical period than the Baroque; by then, it was regarded as too rigid and lifeless. In fact, both portative and positive organs gradually disappeared during the second half of the 18th century, and only the Great Church organ remained in general use.

Portative Organ Structure

The syrinx was a piped instrument that was part of the hydraulis, where levels of water determined the note played. The concept of the pipe, sounded by air, and maintained at a fairly stable pressure by the weight of the water, could be stopped or unstopped by a mechanical device (a plug on the end of a lever) rather than by finger holes.

The first invention to improve the action of the stops was a series of slides that were pulled out and pushed back in. The next improvement was to make it easier to move the slides by pressing on keys that returned to their original stopping positions by springs. The spring mechanism was first mentioned in Hero of Alexandria’s (c10-70 CE) “Pneumatics” in the 1st century CE. His contemporary Vitruvius (c80 BCE- after 15 CE) describes a more complicated instrument with double pumps and four, six, or eight canals that admitted or denied wind to a separate rank of pipes. Early images often depict a bagpipe rather than an organ to illustrate the principles on which this pneumatic system was based.

The portative’s construction was fairly simple. The pipes were arranged on a small rectangular wind chest and supplied with wind by one or two bellows placed at the back, in front, or at the right side of the instrument. The row of pipes is supported by posts at either end and a supportive crossbar. The simplest style of keyboard consists of one slider for each pipe. When the slider is pushed in, the corresponding pipe sounds. The slider is restored to its normal position by a spring. Some instruments use the reverse action, with keys featuring knobs or handles that are pulled out to sound the pipe.

The portative is smaller than the also-portable positive, which has more ranks of pipes than the portative and a larger keyboard. The portative should not be confused with the regal, which is also a small organ, but the regal contains short-length reed pipes instead of flue pipes (there’s a blog in the works on regals and reed pipes).

Since the Orgelbewegung revival movement in the early 20th century, small organs that can be played with both hands and have a bass register have come to be called portatives, especially when their pipe arrangement or general layout resembles that of the actual portative.

The earliest image of keys is in a 7-inch high terracotta model of an organ with its player from the 2nd century CE, found at Carthage. It had 18 broad keys that play three ranks each of 18 pipes. Two of these three ranks are flue pipes, built on the flute principle, rather than reeds (reeds vibrate in the breeze to sound, rather than whistling through a hollow tube). The player used both hands to play the keyboard. He might have used his left hand for changing the drone note. This might have been the sound that made Roman philosopher Seneca (c4 BCE and 65 CE) refer to consonance (two notes sounding simultaneously and making a pleasant sound). Don’t get confused, though. Polyphony and chords don’t come along for another thousand years (see Chords versus Polyphony for more on that).

The earliest surviving organ is from the 3rd century CE, and was found at Aquincum near Budapest. It had been presented by the Guild of Weavers to Alexander Severus (208-235 CE) in 228. It’s a small domestic organ with four ranks of 13 flue-pipes, of which, three ranks are stopped, one is open, and there are 13 sliders with keys. Each rank of pipes provides different harmonics, and the largest pipe is about 13 inches long.

Unlike the powerful portable but full-sized positive organ, the portative was intended to be played while moving. It has relatively few pipes, the largest of which could be used to provide a drone. A single person played it, working the bellows with his left hand and playing the keys with his right. The keys were often pushbuttons rather than the keys of a keyboard.

There was a tremendous variation in portative sizes. From six to 30 pipes, usually in two ranks, but occasionally in three or one. Keys might be button or lever keys (like modern instruments) or pull or push stops.

The greatest differences among the various sizes are in the range of notes. Half-steps (like where the black keys live on a modern piano) appear randomly and sometimes even whole steps are eliminated because they simply hadn’t identified the order of things (that wouldn’t happen until the early Middle Ages). Possibly, scales on a portative were customized to the performer. It’s also possible that the pipes were changed for specific performances (like tuning a harp without sharping levers).

The 15th century was the portative’s prime, when the instruments had drone pipes that were larger and separated from the rest of the pipes. For the first time, two rows of keys appeared, done to save space, as the chromatic scale was still not an option on this small instrument. By this point, it was mostly used for secular music and monastic scholarly exploits and training. In the 15th century, both portative and positive organs had only a few chromatic notes (B-flat, F-sharp, and C-sharp)—key signatures wouldn’t come into being until the next century and weren’t really standardized until the 17th century.

The portative organ has these some different parts from Great Church organs:

  • Wind-chest: Stores the reservoir of air. Air that’s pumped from a bellows passes through conduits into the wind-chest and from there into the soundboard.
  • Soundboard: A table that contains a number of grooves to hold each individual pipe.
  • Spring soundboards: A special valve that is fitted into the grooves to interrupt or admit wind into the pipes.
  • Slider soundboards: The grooves underlying all the pipes on the soundboard are specific to a particular note. The sliders working across the grooves are pierced with holes, admitting the wind to the pipes or cutting it off. The solid portions of the sliders close the pipes. When the register (tone quality of a group of pipes, like flute or gamba) is to be included, the slider is pulled out until the holes are situated under the feet of the pipes so that the wind can enter unimpeded when the associated key is depressed. Slider soundboards are less likely to break than the spring versions, and were universally adopted in the Baroque period.

For more on the structure of organs, see my Church Organ post.

By the Baroque period, portatives were used mostly in processions. They had several registers and were heavier and more elaborate than the portatives of the late Middle Ages. Those early instruments could be played by one person, but two were needed for this larger portative.

Portative Organ Name

The original name was the hydraulis, until the Romans took it over and changed it to a more Latin sounding name. By the Renaissance, Italian portatives were called the organetto (little organ).

The Magrepha was a Hebrew version with 10 pipes.

Portative Organ Composers

Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361) wrote the “Fauvel” motets (the story of a horse’s exploits), some of which were to be played on the organ.

Giovanni Gabrieli (c1535-1612) composed a “Magnificat” that probably used a portative organ, along with trombones, cornettos, and violins.

Francesco Landini (c1325-1397) was a blind master of many instruments, but he was especially known for his skill on the portative organ. He seems to have written no sacred music (that he took credit for, anyway), and was best known for his 140 ballate, 12 madrigals, one caccia, and one virelai. He was the central figure in Giovanni de Prato’s narrative poem “Paradiso degli Alberti” of 1425 that records scdenes and conversations in Florence from the year 1389.

Portative Organ Players

Francesco Landini (c1325-1397). I covered him in the composers section.

Gilles de Bins (c1400-1460), known as Binchois (biography to come), was a chorister and organist in France for three decades. He spent time working for William Pole, earl of Suffolk, who was with the English forces occupying France. He also joined the chapel of Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy sometime around 1427, and served at court until his retirement in 1453. His involvement with English musicians definitely affected the French music that he wrote.

Dolly Collins (1933-1995), who accompanied her sister Shirley Collins (1935-  ) on albums of traditional English folk songs.

Hana Blochova (dates unknown) is a Russian-speaking woman with images on YouTube. She’d chatted for more than four minutes wafting a psaltery around but not playing it, so I didn’t wade through the whole 35 minute recording to see if she played the portative. You let me know if she does, won’t you?


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