1893 text

All instruments of the harpsichord and spinet kind were styled virginals.

The virginal differed from the spinet in being square instead of triangular in form. The word pair was used in the obsolete sense of a set, as we read also of a pair of organs. The instrument is supposed to have obtained its name from young women, playing upon it.

This text comes from a footnote on a diary entry in the 1893 edition edited by Henry B. Wheatley.

14 Annotations

First Reading

Albert Sanchez Moreno  •  Link

A virginal is some kind of musical instrument no longer in use.

Bradford  •  Link

The virginals---one of those odd words which is singular though it looks plural---was a household keyboard instrument, a small legless harpsichord with only one set of strings and one keyboard, so that its timbre could not be changed. The English version produced soft tones, compared to the louder Italian version; a Flemish model can be seen in Vermeer's famous painting of a woman at the virginals. (Indeed, the instrument seems identified with women.) (Information condensed from New Grove, 1980.) There seems to be no comprehensive site about it---you can try your luck Googling---although there is plenty of information about the music written expressly for it; but here is a fine example of the English sort, and the photo will explain a lot:


Bradford  •  Link

Many thanks Vincent, and ouch! to all Dutch-speaking readers of Pepys: there were Flemish virginals, but Vermeer's would have been Dutch. (Phlegms speak Dutch, and the Dutch speak Dutch, but not all Dutch-speakers live in the Netherlands. I think I've got that right now.)

dirk  •  Link


As far as I've been able to find out, the virginal (or virginals) was an English invention - and at the time most virginals were built in either England, Flanders or Italy. Byrd and Bull were probably the most proficient roughly contemporary composers of music for the instrument.

By the way John Bull (being a catholic) left England for Flanders and became choir leader and organist in the Antwerp cathedral, and was buried there with great ceremony after his death in 1628.

dirk  •  Link

John Bull

Further on JB: He's the composer of the British national anthem "God save the King/Queen" - the original manuscript of which is in the careful keeping of the archives of that very same Antwerp Cathedral.

(Yes, I'm from Antwerp...)

Grahamt  •  Link

Re: "Indeed, the instrument seems identified with women"
I understood that it was called a virginals because it was designed for young women to play. Each key causes a single string to be plucked rather than the two of a harpsichord, so probably had a lighter action on the keys.

vicente  •  Link

Very grand virginal. see Liza Picard, Restoration London: page, pict P234- comment, P206 ; Virginal came in two parts, thus it was called a pair of ,

Peter Redstone  •  Link

Around 1660 Girolamo Zenti introduced the wing-shaped spinet to the English, an instrument that rapidly replaced the rectangular virginal as the preferred domestic instrument. Both are members of the plucked-string harpsichord family. Pepys bought his spinet from Charles Haward, a first class maker of the time. He referred to it originally as a triangle-virginalls; later as a triangle since it is indeed triangular in shape.

in Aqua Scripto  •  Link

evolution of creating a better moustrap.
History of the Piano 1709/11 A Paduan [ Bartolommeo Cristofori ] creation out of the Harpsicord. "gravicemblo col piano e forte"
Article by David S. Grover, M.A.Cantab., F.I.M.I.T., F.R.S.A.


Peter Redstone  •  Link

Addendum to my former annotation:
Further thoughts show that this instrument was NOT the Haward, which he did not acquire till later, but rather to an older instrument (Lord Sandwich's?) which seems to have been an ottavino virginal, probably of Italian origin, since the Italians specialized in these instruments. A further pointer would be its lack of a stand: the bentside spinet proper was of sufficient size to have warranted a stand always!

However the virginal maker to whom Pepys went, was probably the same Haward from whom he later bought his spinet.

George Foss  •  Link

The term pair of virginals is similar to a pair of scissors. This is the reason for a singlular object having a plural form. During the time of the Tudors in England, the term Virginals was used generically for all forms of the Harpsichord, the grand form as well as the square form now associated with the term. Some give the origin to the Latin Virga a rod, a possible reference to the jacks, instead of the more feminine nature. The term virginal was in use before the paintings by Vermeer, et al. Pun on the words Virginals and Virginal was used in the some of the earliest printed music for the Harpsichord in England, Parthenia or the Maidenhead. The first edition depicts a lady at the virginal, later editions have the lady seated at the harpsichord.

Second Reading

Terry Foreman  •  Link

A virginal is a smaller and simpler rectangular form of the harpsichord with only one string per note running more or less 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. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vir…

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Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.


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