Instruments | Spinet & Virginal | Renaissance | Classical
Almost invariably with just one keyboard and a single set of strings and jacks, the spinet was essentially a smaller version of the harpsichord. Its name meant ‘little thorn’ (referring to the quill) and the mechanism for plucking the string and the resulting sound were both like those of the harpsichord. However, while the harpsichord’s strings were attached immediately behind the keyboard and ran away from the player in straight lines, those of the spinet were mounted obliquely to run diagonally from left to right. The spinet, essentially an early harpsichord, was generally used in domestic settings.
The virginal (or virginals) was another form of small harpsichord, usually with one set of strings and jacks and invariably with only one keyboard. The term was used in England to denote all quilled keyboard instruments throughout the Renaissance, which has led to some confusion. It is now taken to refer to instruments with transverse strings – running at right angles to the keys. The longest (therefore deepest-sounding) strings were placed at the front, enabling makers to build virginals in a wide variety of shapes – rectangular, pentagonal and polygonal. These were desk-top instruments, and tended not to be made with a set of built-in legs as harpsichords were. The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book is made up of nearly 300 pieces by the leading composers for this instrument, including Bull and Byrd.
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