Instruments | Virginals | Keyboards

The sole remaining mystery of the virginals is its name – and its singular plurality. A virginals? Nor need there be two instruments to speak of a ‘pair’ of virginals. This was common parlance in Tudor times.

Origins of the Virginals

As to the singular or plural form, both are acceptable these days – but why ‘virginal’ in the first place? Can this be an instrument conceived never to be played? A feast for the eyes alone? Of course not. Nor, despite the mythology, has the name anything to do with Elizabeth I (the ‘Virgin Queen’), however accomplished her playing. The instrument was well established before she was even born. Its feminine attributes, however, are unmistakable. What may well be the most famous title page in the history of music reads: Parthenia or The Maydenhead of the first Musicke that ever was printed for the Virginalls. The date was 1613, and the collection – of works by William Byrd (1543–1623), Orlando Gibbons (1583–1625) and John Bull (1562–1628) was probably the first music ever printed from engraved plates. Adorning the cover is a picture of a demure young lady, whose chastity is all but contagious. The name ‘Parthenia’ derives from the Greek for ‘virgin’. In fact, there is nothing notably feminine about the instrument, or the music written for it.

Virginals Construction

The virginal(s) is really a small harpsichord, generally rectangular in shape, with the strings running parallel to the keyboard on the long side of the case. It has a single set of strings, normally with one string per key. The virginals lacks the colouristic variety of the harpsichord (though not necessarily its volume) but, as many paintings of the period show, it outshone the harpsichord as the most popular of all domestic keyboard instruments. Confusingly, though, the name ‘virginals’ was applied throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, particularly in England, as a generic term for any keyboard instrument in which the strings are plucked rather than struck.

Music for the Virginals

Apart from its intrinsic value, the contents of Parthenia belong to that great body of music in which composers first wrote idiomatically for a keyboard instrument, clearly differentiating it in style from vocal or string chamber music (itself hardly distinguished at all from vocal music). It contains many passages, particularly very rapid ones, which could never be convincingly played – if played at all – on a non-keyboard instrument, with the exception of such other plucked instruments as the lute, cittarone or guitar. However, little or no stylistic distinction was made by Renaissance composers between the virginals, the spinet, the clavichord, the fully fledged harpsichord and the organ. In addition to the composers mentioned above, important composers of the English virginals school were Peter Philips (1560–1628), Giles Farnaby (1563–1640), Martin Peerson (c. 1571–1651), Thomas Weelkes (1576–1623), Thomas Tomkins (1572–1656) and Benjamin Cosyn (c. 1570–1652).

Introduction | Keyboards
Instruments | Spinet | Keyboards

Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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