"To teach men's daughters on the virginal is as harmless a calling as any man can follow." - Solomon Eccles (1618-1683)

"Muficks Hand-maide
Prefenting New and Pleafant LESSONS
for the
Virginals or Harpfycon.
(A 1663 handbill)

Instrument Type: Keyboard
Instument Pitch: Concert
Instrument Range: c' to c''''

The virginal is a keyboard instrument that is similar to a small harpsichord. It was the most popular keyboard instrument in Elizabethan households. It is thought that the name may be a complement to Elizabeth, the 'Virgin Queen' (even though the instrument is descended from the psaltery, and has been dated from around 1460, 50 years before Queen Elizabeth's birth). Other thoughts on the name include it being a derivative of the Latin 'virga' ('rod' or 'jack'), or even the name being a reference to the most common players of the instrument - young women.

By the year 1500, virginals were played throughout Europe: on the walls of Manor House, Leckingfield, Yorkshire, the virginal features in a proverb dating about 1500... whereas on the other side of Europe, it is recorded that the Buda court organist entertained the dining prince on the virginal during 1501. King Henry VIII purchased five virginals in 1530; Innsbruck court purchased one made by an organ builder in Königsberg in 1549. Virginals were incredibly popular domestic instruments in England, Austria, Germany and the Low Countries. They were succeeded by the spinet in England, and the clavichord in Germany. But for all their popularity at the time, the virginal is now not a well-known instrument, and is more of a scholar's interest.

Shape and Sound: The virginal, like the clavichord, piano, spinet and harpsichord, comprised strings and keyboard. The virginal had 32 metal strings which lay parallel with the keyboard (think of a piano with all of the keys at one end, and a box where the rest of the keys would normally lie). It had the shape of the clavichord, and the sound of a harpsichord (due to the fact that the strings were plucked). Each string was longer than its neighbouring string, resulting in a triangle inside the case, with the long bass strings at the front. Flemish virginals featured a keyboard that was placed on the right or left of the centre of the long side (this determined the timbre of the instrument). Placed on the right, the strings were plucked nearer their centre, producing a nasal tone that was once described as "grunting like pigs" (this form was called a muselar). When the keyboard was placed on the right, the sound was brighter (this being a spinett - note the double 't'!).

England, Belgium and Italy were responsible for most of the manufacture of virginals. Those made in Italy comprised cypress wood without a lid with a projecting keyboard (like the contempory Italian spinet). The Flemish versions, chiefly manufactured in Antwerp, featured recessed keyboards, thicker softwood construction and lids. The only surviving English virginals all date between 1640 and 1680, and are a combination of the Flemish and Italian designs. They were very deep and had a vaulted lid.

Another feature of the virginal is its decorations. The instruments are often pieces of art, the insides of which feature delicate paintings of flowers and latin proverbs on printed paper. Glass was also used in the decoration of the instrument, and complex pictures were created on the inside of the lids and instrument (the virginal could be said to resemble a rectangular box, with a lid on the top that had hinges at the back, opening upwards and back, and hinges at the bottom of the front, so that the front panel dropped down, thus revealing the keyboard and designs).

The Double Virginal:
A very popular form of the instrument was invented in Antwerp in the late 16th century, and was called the 'Double Virginal' (nicknamed the 'mother and child'). It comprised a large keyboard and another half its size. The smaller keyboard was set between the soundboard and the bottom of the case in a recess, usually to the larger keyboard's left. The so-called 'child' keyboard could be played on its own, but was more commonly used during performance: the 'child' was withdrawn and placed on top of the 'mother', so the 'mother' keyboard played both instruments. The 'child' was an octave higher that the 'mother'.

Virginal Music:
The virginal music idiom is certainly a patterned scalar technique, and English virginal composers favoured broken-chord endings. There is little surviving manuscripts for this style of music, so the history of virginal music is incomplete. It is thought, however, that virginal composers followed the example of Hugh Aston's 'Hornepype', as the style of the piece was naturally suited to playing on the virginal.

Most of the surviving virginal music collections are by English composers, the most important of which are:
  1. My Lady Nevells Booke - 1591, copied out by John Baldwyne and housed in the library of the Marquess of Abergavenny. Contains 43 William Byrd compositions (who was probably the teacher of Lady Nevell).
  2. Parthenia or the Maydenhead of the first musicke that ever was printed for the Virginalls - 1611, printed in London by G. Lowe. This collection comprises 21 compositions by John Bull, William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons.
  3. Benjamijn Cosyn's Virginal Book - 1605-1622?, housed in the Royal Library of the British Museum. Comprises 98 works by Benjamin Cosyn, Orlando Gibbons, John Bull, Thomas Tallis, William Byrd and others.
  4. Will Forster's Virginal Book - 1624, also housed in the Royal Library of the British Museum. Contains works by Willaim Byrd, Thomas Morley and John Ward, among others.
  5. Parthenia In-Violata or Mayden-Musicke for the Virginalls and Bass-Viol - 1625?, housed in the New York Public Library. Contains 17 pieces by John Bull, Edmund Hooper, John Coprario and others.
  6. Dublin Virginal Book - 1583, housed in the library of Trinity College, Dublin. Contains 30 untitled and often anonymous pieces.
  7. And the most important collection of all, the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (see below).

  8. (NB: Modern editions of many of these books are avaliable)
The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book is often used as a representitive of English virginal music. It contains almost three hundred compositions by many different composers, and may be used to study the devices, musical forms and techniques employed by the various composers. There are many different musical forms used: "dances, fantasies, notets, preludes, airs (varied or amplified), contrapuntal inventions, masquerades and liturgical plainsong" (straight from source "Five Centuries..."). The music itself combines traditional forms of the time with modern tonality, and embellishments were added frequently. Indeed, the theme at times becomes so over-embellished that it is completely transformed! Technically, virginal pieces are rated extremely difficult to play. Rhythm is experimented with in the music, with new ideas probably based upon that of vocal music of the time.

The Virginal Composers:
William Byrd (1542-1623) is considered a 'first-generation' virginal composer, and was the dominant force in the music of the period. Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) and William Blitheman (d. 1591) were also part of this 'generation'.

The second generation of virginal composers are considered the most famous of the English virginal school, and include Peter Philips (1555-1628), John Bull (1562-1628) and Giles Farnaby (1560-1640).

The outstanding third generation English virginal school spokesman was Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625). Virginal use, after this time, dropped off, to be succeeded by the clavichord and other keyboard instruments.

Miscellaneous Information:
Virginals featured often in artwork by Dutch master painters in the late seventeenth century, a testament to the importance of chamber music to domestic life.

The English monarchs and royalty loved the virginal. Elizabeth of York (the wife of King Henry VII), and Catherine of Aragon (first wife of King Henry VII), King Henry VIII, Mary Tudor, Queen Elizabeth and Mary Stuart (it was said she played "reasonably for a queen") all played the virginal. Following the fashion begun by the royalty, English society also began playing the virginal... which was then immortalized by William Shakespeare in his 'Sonnet to a Lady Playing the Virginal' (Sonnet CXXVIII).

'Music - An Illustrated History' by Max Wade-Matthews (2001, Hermes House)
'Five Centuries of Keyboard Music' by John Gillespie (1972, Wadsworth Publishing Company, Inc.)
As darl has said, when I reserved this node, it was a 'wilfully obscure choice'. This means I haven't had access to as many resources as I would like - if there are any mistakes in this node, please let me know, and I will fix them!

Vir"gin*al (?), a. [L. virginalis: cf. F. virginal.]

Of or pertaining to a virgin; becoming a virgin; maidenly.

"Chastity and honor virginal."


Virginal generation Biol., parthenogenesis. -- Virginal membrane Anat., the hymen.


© Webster 1913.

Vir"gin*al, n. [Cf. F. virginale; -- probably so called from being used by young girls, or virgins.] Mus.

An instrument somewhat resembling the spinet, but having a rectangular form, like the small piano. It had strings and keys, but only one wire to a note. The instrument was used in the sixteenth century, but is now wholly obsolete. It was sometimes called a pair of virginals.


© Webster 1913.

Vir"gin*al, v. i.

To play with the fingers, as if on a virginal; to tap or pat.

[Obs.] "Still virginaling upon his palm!"



© Webster 1913.

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