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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.


On Henry VIII’s MP3 Player (1491-1547)

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This blog post was written as a guest blog for and was live on August 31, 2013. Check their site out for interesting posts on all facets of British history!

Okay, so you and I both know that Henry VIII didn’t have an MP3 player. But what if he had? What kind of music would he have collected? What interesting tunes would turn up on shuffle?

<insert watery wavering lines and harp glissandos as we travel back in time…>

Henry VIII was King of England from 1509-1547. His father, Henry VII, had a serious interest in music and was a strong supporter of musicians. Throughout Henry VIII’s childhood, music occupied a prominent place at his father’s court, and young Henry was trained in music from an early age.

When he was still a teenager, it was his turn to be king, and Henry VIII turned his court into a center of musical culture. He encouraged foreign musicians to work there, introducing the Franco-Flemish style of church music (see my posts on Josquin, Dufay, and Ockeghem for more about this style) to England, and building up an enormous collection of musical instruments.

During his lifetime and after, supporters created the Henry VIII Manuscript. The manuscript is mainly a secular document, and includes descriptions of life at court (perhaps somewhat embellished and romanticized by a finely honed sense of “courtly love”). It also includes song lyrics, naming composers such as Robert Fayrfax (1461-1521) and William Cornysh the Younger (1468-1523), and even the names of some of his buddies. Other manuscripts from Henry VIII’s reign contain a variety of songs and instrumental pieces in three and four parts, which was the style of the day.

From this environment, by mid-century, a distinctly English genre for solo voice accompanied by a consort of viols had emerged. The master of the consort song was William Byrd (1543-1623), who raised the technical level of the medium to new heights. Byrd’s collection was very successful in his own lifetime and after, and although English madrigal and lute songs are better known today, composers would continue to write songs for consorts well into the 17th century. But Byrd was more a composer for Elizabeth I and James than for Henry. I mention him here so that you can see how English music was hugely colored by Henry VIII, as much by the man himself as by the political and religious change that his monarchy brought about.

Speaking of change, the leader of the Reformation movement and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), wrote to Henry stating what was to become the basic principle for settings of the new English musical texts: “The song should not be full of notes, but, as near as may be, a syllable for every note.” This put the emphasis on the text, where it had been before polyphony came along, about 500 years earlier. (For more on this, read my blog posting Chords versus Polyphony.)

Composers reacted variously to the new conditions. John Taverner (1495-1545), one of England’s shining stars, gave up composition altogether to become an agent of Thomas Cromwell (c1485-1540), who was First Earl of Essex and the chief minister who helped orchestrate the annulment of Henry’s first marriage. Christopher Tye (c1505-c1572) and Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585) wrote music for the Protestant services, which, while attractive, did not match the technical interest and artistry of their Latin music. Both continued to compose Latin motets, but obediently no longer wrote the lengthier (and more undeniably Catholic) Mass music.

The suppression of the monasteries between 1536 and 1547 not only involved the dispersal of monastic musicians, but often included the destruction of musical manuscripts in large quantities, so much of the pre-Reformation music of the British Isles is lost to us. We have the Fayrfax Book (collected c1500) and the Eton Choirbook (collected 1500-1505) from Henry’s father’s time, but that is nearly all that survived. (Don’t you wish there really had been MP3 players?)

The Chapel Royal

In the 13th century, English monarchs established a body of priests and musicians to provide musical entertainment and who were part of the royal household. This group was called the Chapel Royal, and to be named a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal was a considerable honor. It meant income, status, and property. (There is still such a group in England today. Other countries had similar bodies, although most have long since disbanded.)

During Henry’s father’s time, big names like William Cornysh the Younger (1468-1523), Robert Fayrfax (1461-1521), and John Lloyd (d.1523) were part of this establishment, and after Henry’s time, William Byrd (1543-1623), Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585), and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) received this honor.

During Henry’s reign, only Richard Edwardes (1525-1566) seems to have been added to the very auspicious ranks. Edwardes was probably Henry’s illegitimate son by Agnes Edwards, so it’s hard to know if he was there on merit or out of some obligation on Henry’s part.

But that doesn’t mean Henry VIII didn’t surround himself with musicians of the highest caliber. It meant that many of the greatest musicians of his time were already members from his father’s reign. But he didn’t stop with British musicians. He invited big names from all over the Continent to come, and come they did.

Henry collected all things musical, and musical instruments were no exception. It probably started with the tradition of having household minstrels. At the time, minstrels were common for royal households and those of other aristocrats. Ecclesiastics kept them, and so did towns and ships. Minstrels played either haut instruments or bas (for more on haut and bas, see my post on the shawm) as required by the occasion, and they sang and were expected to compose songs on demand. Kind of like today’s rap artists.

The minstrel would have had a large collection of instruments, such as the louder winds and the trompette de menestrals (which was a slide trumpet or sackbut, not a modern trumpet), stringed and keyboard instruments, along with gentler wind instruments like recorders and cornetti. Wind instruments were his favorite, and Henry VIII had 77 recorders in his stash when he died.

Henry was a skilled all-around performer, playing several keyboard instruments, the cornetto, the recorder, and the lira de flauti (I don’t know what that is, but I’m going to guess that it’s some sort of lyre or harp). There are stories that Sir Edward Stanley (c1460-1523), the fellow reputed to have killed James IV of Scotland, wrote and sang a ballade to the clavichord while at court, but it isn’t known if Henry accompanied him.

There were plenty of people in Henry VIII’s court who played or composed, including Robert Fayrfax (1461-1521), Richard Davy (c1465-1538), William Cornysh the Younger (1468-1523), Thomas Ashewell (c1478-c1513), John Redford (c1486–1547), Nicholas Ludford (c1490–1557), John Taverner (1495–1545), Christopher Tye (c1505–c1572), and most notably, Thomas Tallis (c1505–1585). And there were some Chapel members who didn’t compose but were fine musicians, such as Benedict de Opitiis (dates not available), Ambrose Lupo (d. 1591), Dionisio Memo (dates not available), and Richard Sampson (d. 1554). All of these fellows would have been on Henry’s MP3 player. There would also have been women at court who played or sang, including some of his wives, such as Anne Boleyn, who was Henry’s equal in musical skill.

Henry’s education was quite good. In addition to reading and writing in English, French, and Latin, he played the lute, organ, and virginals, along with that assortment of wind instruments. (And I thought I had a large collection of instruments!)

Music was terrifically important to him, and he brought musicians from the Continent to teach and share their compositions. It was Henry VIII that put an end to English musical isolationism, something that Elizabeth I would follow up on with enthusiasm.

In 1513, Henry took the members of the Chapel Royal to Lille, where they met the Burgundian Chapel of Margaret of Austria. It must have been a wonderful festival, full of music. While Henry was out and about, he recruited  Venetian organist Dionisio Memo (mentioned above), a whole bunch of French and Flemish musicians, and the Bruges organist Benet de Opiciis (no dates on this fellow, although he took payment for a regal organ—a post about these is coming soon—in 1518).

In 1520, they all trooped over to the Field of the Cloth of Gold in France, where they met the French Chapel of Francis I. The meeting was intended to improve relations between France and England and was considered a successful meeting, but one which not be repeated until Queen Victoria met King Louis Philippe I in 1843.

You all know the story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, so I won’t tell it here. But the result of the fracas was a new church. In 1534, Henry convinced Parliament to separate from Rome and named himself as the new head of the Church of England. The new church remained essentially Catholic in Doctrine under Henry, but Henry wanted a few changes. He wanted less pomp and circumstance, as prescribed by the Mass format, but more importantly, he wanted the services to be in English rather than Latin, the language of Rome. English music would be changed forever.

The Music and Musicians

The leading composer of the early 16th century was John Taverner (c1490-1545). His Masses and motets exemplify the English taste for long melismas (lots of notes on a single syllable), full textures, and cantus-firmus (the chant melody, usually performed slowly as a counterpoint to the polyphony swirling around it). This is the opposite of what Thomas Cranmer prescribed, if you’ll recall, and probably had a lot to do with Taverner’s quitting the music business.

Most of Taverner’s church music was probably written during the years 1526-30, while he was organist and choirmaster of Cardinal College (now Christ Church), at Oxford. It includes eight Masses, three Magnificats, and some shorter pieces. But Taverner was attracted to Lutheranism, and he became a zealous agent of Thomas Cromwell during the Dissolution and repented that he’d previously made “Popish ditties.” He abandoned composition altogether.

Thomas Cranmer (1489-1527) also wrote to Henry, stating the basic principles for settings of the new English texts. He also preferred syllabic music (one note per syllable) rather than melismatic (a single syllable spread over lots of notes). But not all composers agreed.

Christopher Tye (c1505-c1572) and Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585) wrote music for the Protestant services. They were nice, but not as interesting or technical as their Latin music. Both Tye and Tallis continued to compose Latin motets but not Masses, and it is perhaps this simplification of music that led to what would become the English anthem (you’ll read more about those in my post on William Byrd, coming soon).

The most important mid-century English composer—not just for the 16th century, but probably until our own times—was Thomas Tallis (c1505-1565). Firmly Catholic despite the laws against practicing Catholicism, he would come to write English service music and other sacred works that reflected the religious and political upheavals in England during Henry’s rule and through Elizabeth’s. But he couldn’t hide his own pain at the dismal situation his own religion was in, and it’s reflected in his music, either in the melody or in the texts he chose.

Another noted composer of the times was John Merbecke (c1510-c1585). He wrote that music should follow natural speech rhythms. In 1522, Merbecke was among the pro-Calvinists who proclaimed that all music was vanity.

But what would Henry have listened to; what would he have asked his musicians to play? Part songs, which is music written for multiple voice parts (like soprano, alto, tenor, bass) were popular in Henry’s reign, and the fashion continued long after. Keyboard music was new and in vogue, such as that of John Redford (1485-1545) for virginals and organ. Most of these songs were based on chant, now called plainsong in England, with either imitative counterpoints or florid ornamental lines as accompaniment. There are plenty of dances, settings of psalm tunes and chant melodies by Redford’s contemporaries, and transcriptions of secular part songs and anthems in the Mulliner Book (compiled 1545-1570).

The FitzWilliam Virginals Book (collected 1562-1612) is from later years, but it contains organ works from earlier, such as dances, variations on themes, and fantasia forms (lots of improvisation) that are usually found only in the lute repertoire. The virginals or virginal (depending on what country you’re in) was a keyboard instrument similar to the harpsichord, and was very popular among those with smaller parlors.

Any Excuse

There would have been many reasons for making music. Church, obviously, would have been one of them. But it wasn’t all seriousness and prayer. There would have been dances, ceremonies for visiting dignitaries and the promotion of the aristocracy, and social entertainments. There would have been tournaments, festivals, and breaks from the work-a-day drudgery of ruling a nation. There would have been ambient music during meals, fanfares announcing the king’s arrival, and notifications of arriving ships or dignitaries. There would have been loads of music everywhere the king went. Except when he didn’t want it, of course. That’s what being king is all about.

Henry wrote plenty of music himself. There are 34 pieces identified as by Henry, and there are possibly more attributed to “anonymous” or lost. Of the 20 vocal items he wrote, many are not original but are arrangements of existing music, and his instrumental offerings might also have been arrangements.

Pieces for which Henry gets credit include Helas madam and Pastyme with good companye, which are two of his most famous works. They’re very much in the style of what was going on over on the Continent. They also found 13 instrumental pieces in three or four parts, and a three-part motet, Quem pulchra est.

White note mensuration was used to write all this music down. You’ll want to have a look at that over on the blog post I wrote about the History of Music Notation. There’s too much to go into that here.

After Henry VIII

When Henry died, his son Edward was too young to take the throne properly. He had advisors, and as you can imagine, it was a fractious time to be at court. The Edwardian Act of Uniformity devastated all remaining musical establishments by forbidding the celebration of Mass. Attending church became less formal, a poor substitute for what had previously been the chief feature of the daily musical life at cathedrals, churches, and colleges. Whole throngs of monastic and clerical musicians were essentially sent out to compete with lay musicians, seeking patrons and busking to earn their keep.

Under Mary, for five years, Mass music reappeared along with the official restoration of Catholicism. But as soon as Elizabeth took the throne, it was banned again. In the new type of service established during Elizabeth’s reign, Latin motets could be used as church music, along with the new form, the anthem. You’ll want to read my blog post on William Byrd (1543-1623) when I publish it for more on that subject. He’s quite a character!

If you want to build your own MP3 player full of the same music Henry would have heard, you’ll want to search for music by the fellows in this article. Here. I’ll make it easier:


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

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

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

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

“The Pelican History of Music, Volume 2: Renaissance and Baroque,” edited by Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens. Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1973.

“Music Manuscripts,” by Arthur Searle. The British Library, London, 1987.