A virginal is similar in shape to the clavichord, though larger. The case is rectangular with the strings running parallel to the keyboard. Because it is larger the virginal is typically mounted on four legs. However, the playing action of the virginal is quite different from the clavichord, instead functioning as a harpsichord does. For this reason the virginal is most accurately described as an oblong harpsichord.
The virginal appeared sometime in the 15th century and saw its heyday during the late 16th and early 17th centuries, especially in England and northwestern Europe. Indeed, it is an instrument which has heavy Elizabethan associations and can also be seen in the paintings of numerous Dutch masters. The etymology of the term 'virginals' is not clearly understood and is cause for considerably debate among instrument scholars. Some attribute it to the 'virgin' moniker given to Queen Elizabeth while others to a reference by Paulirinus, who noted that the instrument's sound was like the sweet and gentle voice of a virgin. Furthermore, the term 'virginals' typically signifies one instrument rather than numerous ones.
Photo: Nick Michael
The virginal's strings were hitched on the left side and ran across an angled bridge to the tuning pins on the right side. The longer bass strings were towards the keyboard while the shorter treble strings were towards the back of the instrument. This arrangement gave the collective strings a triangluar shape inside the instrument, though the strings were always parellel to the keybaord. This fact led to the introduction of alternative shapes, such as the polygon, for the instrument's case in an effort to get rid of the wasted interior space. Each key had it's own string or pair of strings, which, along with the larger soundboard, gave the virginal more volume than the clavichord. Most importantly, the strings were plucked by a plectrum mounted on a jack, as with the harpsichord, rather than struck by a hammer or tangent. However, the virginal's strings are plucked towards the middle whereas the harpsichord strings are plucked near the end. This gives the virginal a more flutey tone than the harpsichord.
There were numerous variations on the basic virginal design, which involved different placements for the keyboard. Virginals produced in northern Europe, also called muselars, had their keyboards on the right side and a range of 4 octaves. This allowed the strings to be plucked to the right of center and produced a rich and resonant tone. However, unwanted noise from the key jacks and plectra was more easily picked up by the soundboard, resulting in a buzzing or grunting sound. Another type, the spinet virginal (not to be confused with the spinet), originated in Italy and had a 5 octave keyboard that projected out from the instrument instead of being inset as with the muselars. The left placement of the keyboard meant that the strings were plucked left of center, which produced a sound that was much brighter than the muselar. A third innovation was the double virginal, also known as the Mother and Child. This consisted of a normal sized virginal and a smaller ottavino, which was stored underneath the main instrument's soundboard. The ottavino was basically a miniture virginal whose pitch was one octave higher than its larger counterpart. The ottavino could be played on its own or could be coupled with the 'mother' virginal. This was done by placing the ottavino on top of the strings of the 'mother' virginal. Openings in the bottom of the ottavino allowed the jacks of the 'mother' virginal to, not only actuate its own strings, but also the keys of the 'child' virginal above.
One impressive feature of the virginal was the elaborate decoration with which it was often adorned. Elaborate inlay and marquetry, paintings of classical themes, and block Latin inscriptions were the norm. Virginals occupied a very important position throughout most of Europe up until the high baroque period. Because of their similarity to harpsichords, much of the vast musical literature that was written during the renaissance and baroque could be equally applied to the virginal. It's disappearance by the early 18th century can be attributed to the rise of the spinet and the harpsichord, wich boasted double keyboards, numerous sets of strings, and a fuller sound.