AskDefine | Define virginal

Dictionary Definition

virginal adj
1 characteristic of a virgin or virginity; "virginal white dresses"
2 untouched or undefiled; "nor is there anything more virginal than the shimmer of young foliage"- L.P.Smith
3 in a state of sexual virginity; "pure and vestal modesty"; "a spinster or virgin lady"; "men have decreed that their women must be pure and virginal" [syn: pure, vestal, virgin, virtuous] n : a legless rectangular harpsichord; played (usually by women) in the 16th and 17th centuries [syn: pair of virginals]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. Resembling a virgin.


  1. A musical instrument in the harpsichord family.

Extensive Definition

The virginals (the plural form does not necessarily denote more than one instrument) or virginal was a sort of harpsichord (that is to say, a keyboard instrument) popular in northern Europe and Italy during the late Mediaeval and Renaissance periods.


The virginals is a smaller and simpler rectangular form of the harpsichord with only one string per note running parallel to the keyboard on the long side of the case. Many, if not most, of the instruments were constructed without legs, and would be placed on a table for playing. Later models were built with their own stands.


The mechanism of the virginals is identical to that of the harpsichord in that its wire strings are plucked by jacks. Its case, however, is rectangular, and the typically single eight foot pitch choir of strings, with one string per note, runs roughly parallel to the keyboard. This arrangement causes the strings to be plucked nearer the middle rather than at one end, as in the case of the harpsichord, and produces a richer, flute-like tone.


The origin of the name is obscure. One theory derives it from the Latin virga meaning a rod, perhaps referring to the wooden jacks that rest on the ends of the keys. However, this theory is unproved. Another possibility is that the name derives from the instrument's association with female performers, or its sound, which has been likened by some musical theorists to the sound of a young girl's voice (vox virginalis). or that the name derives from the Virgin Mary as it was used by nuns to accompany hymns in honour of the Virgin.
In England during the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, any stringed keyboard instrument was often described as a virginals, and could equally well apply to a harpsichord or possibly even a clavichord or spinet. Thus the masterworks of William Byrd and his contemporaries were often played on full-size, Italian or Flemish-style harpsichords and not just on the virginals as we call it today. Contemporary nomenclature often referred to a pair of virginals, which implied a single instrument, possibly a harpsichord with two registers, or a double virginals (see below).


Like the harpsichord, the virginals has its origins in the medieval psaltery to which a keyboard was applied, probably in the 15th century. The first mention of the word is in Paulus Paulirinus of Prague's (1413-1471) Tractatus de musica of around 1460 where he writes: "The virginal is an instrument in the shape of a clavichord, having metal strings which give it the timbre of a clavicembalo. It has 32 courses of strings set in motion by striking the fingers on projecting keys, giving a dulcet tone in both whole and half steps. It is called a virginal because, like a virgin, it sounds with a gentle and undisturbed voice." The OED records its first mention in English in 1530, when King Henry VIII purchased five such instruments. Small early virginals were played either in the lap, or more commonly, rested on a table, but nearly all later examples were provided with their own stands.
The heyday of the virginals was the latter half of the 16th century to the later 17th century until the high baroque period when it was eclipsed in England by the bentside spinet and in Germany by the clavichord.


Virginals may be described either as spinet virginals or muselar virginals.

Spinet virginals

Spinet virginals were made principally in Italy (Italian: spinetta), England and Flanders (Dutch: spinetten). The keyboard is placed left of centre, and the strings are plucked at one end, although further from the bridge than in the harpsichord. This is the more common arrangement for modern instruments, and an instrument described simply as a "virginal" is likely to be a spinet virginals. The principal differences in construction lie mainly in the placement of the keyboard: Italian instruments invariably had a keyboard that projected from the case, whilst northern virginals had their keyboards recessed in a keywell. The cases of Italian instruments were made of cypress wood and were of delicate manufacture, whilst northern virginals were made of softwood and were of stouter construction. Early Italian virginals were usually hexagonal in shape, the case following the lines of the strings and bridges, and a few early Flemish examples are similarly made. From about 1580 however, nearly all virginals were rectangular, the Italian models often having an outer case like harpsichords from that country. There are very few surviving English virginals, all of them late, but they generally follow the Flemish construction with heavier cases, whilst having a vaulted lid.

Muselar virginals

Muselar (also muselaar or muselars) virginals were made only in northern Europe. Here, the keyboard is placed right of centre and the strings are plucked about one third the way along their sounding length. This gives a warm rich and fundamental sound (somewhat reminiscent of a square wave), but at a price: the action for the left hand is inevitably placed in the middle of the instrument's sounding board, with the result that any mechanical noise from this action is amplified. In addition to mechanical noise, from the string vibrating against the descending plectrum, the central plucking point in the bass makes repetition difficult, because the motion of the still-sounding string interferes with the ability of the plectrum to connect again. An 18th-century commentator (Van Blankenberg, 1739) said that muselars "grunt in the bass like young pigs". Thus the muselar was better suited to chord-and-melody music without complex left hand parts. The muselar could also be provided with a stop called the Harpichordium (also arpichordium), which consists of lead hooks being lightly applied against the ends of the bass strings in such a manner that the string vibrating against the hook produces a buzzing, snarling sound.
Muselars were popular in the 16th and 17th centuries and their ubiquity has been compared to that of the upright piano in the early 20th century, but like other types of virginals they fell out of use in the 18th century.

Ottavino virginals

Both Italian and northern schools produced a miniature virginals called the ottavino. Ottavini were pitched an octave higher than the larger instrument. In the Flemish tradition these were often sold together with a standard virginals or muselaar, to which the ottavino could be coupled (see Double Virginals below). In the Italian tradition, an ottavino was usually a separate instrument of its own, being fitted in their own outer case, just like larger Italian instruments.

Double virginals

The Flemish school, in particular the Ruckers family, produced a speciality of virginals known as Mother and Child (moeder und kind). This consisted of two instruments in one: a normal virginals (either spinet or muselar) with one (say) 8' register, and an ottavino virginals with one 4' register. The smaller ottavino was stored (rather like a drawer) under the soundboard next to the keyboard of the larger instrument, and could be withdrawn and played as a separate keyboard instrument. However, the two instruments could also be coupled together, the ottavino being placed over the strings of the larger virginals (once the jack rail was removed), so that the jacks of the latter activated those of the ottavino, giving a more brilliant effect.

Compass and pitch

The keyboard compass of most virginals was C/E to c3 (45 notes) which allowed the performance of the music contemporarily available for the instruments. The lower octave was broken and tuned to a short octave, so that the bottom F# sounded D and the bottom G# sounded E. Some Italian models range from C to f3 (54 notes).
Virginals were available in various sizes. The Dutch organist and harpsichordist Class Douwes (circa 1650 – circa 1725) mentions instruments from nominal 6 foot down to 2 ½ feet. The pitch differences between the models offered by the Ruckers workshops were by no means arbitrary, but corresponded to the musical intervals of a tone, a fourth, a fifth and an octave. Pitch assignments have been suggested for these instruments based on scalings provided by Douwes. Standard modern instruments have an 8' pitch and ottavinos a 4' pitch.


Whilst many early virginals throughout Europe were left in plain wood, they were soon provided with rich decoration, which may have contributed to the survival of many such instruments. From mouldings on case edges, rails and battens to adornment with ivory, mother-of-pearl, marble, agate, tortoiseshell or semi-precious stones, not to mention intricate painting, no expense was spared by those who could afford it.
The classic Flemish virginals had their soundboards painted with flowers, fruit, birds, caterpillars, moths and even cooked prawns, all within intricate blue arabesques. Their cases were often plainly marbled on the outside, whilst the inside was decorated with elaborate block-printed papers. Sometimes the inside lid bore a decorative scene, or on less lavish models, a motto, always in Latin and usually connected with morality or music. Mottos could also be applied to the keywell batten. Some typical mottos include:
  • SIC TRANSIT GLORIA MVNDI (Thus passes the glory of the world)
  • MVSICA DVLCE LABORVM LEVAMEN (Sweet music is the solace of labour)
  • MVSICA DONVM DEI (Music is the gift of God)
The Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675) was one among several who produced paintings including examples of virginals: *Parthenia

Further reading

  • Ruckers: A Harpsichord and Virginal Building Tradition by Grant O'Brien. Cambridge University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0521066822
  • The Historical Harpsichord General Editor: Howard Schott. Vol. IV: Harpsichord Decoration – A Conspectus, by Sheridan Germann. Pendragon Press, Hillsdale, NY, 2002. ISBN 0-945193-75-0. Contains much on the decoration of virginals.
  • Musical Instruments and Their Decoration by Christoph Rueger. Seven Hills Books, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1986. ISBN 0-911403-17-5
  • Keyboard Instruments at the Victoria and Albert Museum by James Yorke. Victoria and Albert Museum, London 1986. ISBN 0-948107-04-9


virginal in Danish: Virginal
virginal in German: Virginal
virginal in Spanish: Virginal
virginal in French: Virginal
virginal in Georgian: ვერჯინელი
virginal in Dutch: Virginaal
virginal in Polish: Wirginał
virginal in Portuguese: Virginal
virginal in Russian: Вёрджинел
virginal in Finnish: Virginaali
virginal in Swedish: Virginal

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