Virginal

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Virginal from 1581 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The virginal (or virginals) was a domestic keyboard instrument, the earliest member of the harpsichord family; and derived from the psaltery in that it was a (usually) oblong box with tuned strings stretched along it, which were plucked (as against struck, as in the dulcimer or modern piano) to produce the sound. It was of a size suitable for placing on a household table; however some were built with their own frames or legs. A keyboard along one of the longer sides (i.e. parallel to the strings - which defines this instrument from other members of the family) has keys attached to wooden “jacks” which in turn have leather plectras (called “quills”) which pass along the strings like fingers over guitar strings.

Its earliest recorded mention is in the mid-15th century and its greatest popularity was during the two centuries from 1600. William Byrd wrote for it and it was enjoyed by Mozart. Its etymology is problematical. Historic belief that it was so-named because it was played by Elizabeth I (the “Virgin Queen”) have been disproved by references to its name before her reign. That it was played by the daughters of the household, and that the earliest book of compositions for the instrument is the “Parthenia” (“Maidens’ songs”) supports the idea that it was so-named because of its popularity as an instrument for young ladies.

The virginal is important in musical history as it was the first to show the potential of the keyboard. After the “Parthenia”, four other major books of virginal music, the manuscripts of which have survived and are published, give insight into the development into this form of “serious” music.

Reference: That thing on the right.

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