virginal Townsend


by Bob van Asperen

The seventeenth-century virginal is a rectangular keyboard instrument of the harpsichord type. The keyboard is located on the long side and, viewed from the player's position, the strings run from left to right, the long bass strings at the front, the short descant strings at the back. Unlike the harpsichord where one bridge is located on the soundboard and the other is inactive, the virginal has two functional bridges which account for its unique sound.  

There are two types of seventeenth-century Flemish virginals: the spinet virginal with its clear, dry sound and the muselar - both in the terminology of Klaas Douwes, Franeker 1699 - with its darker, hollow tone. This difference in tone is a direct result of different plucking points. With the spinet virginal, the plucking point is closer to the bridge, the keyboard being slightly to the left; with the muselar it is more towards the middle of the string, with the keyboard to the right.

The origin of the name of the instrument is not entirely clear. 'Virginal' may derive from 'virgin' [maiden] because of its association with female players, or from 'virga' [Latin, 'rod'] after the wooden jack which contains the plucking plectrum.

In the seventeenth century, the virginal, that favourite of the harpsichord family, seems to have held an irresistible attraction for well-bred young ladies, as evidenced by the profusion of paintings in which they had themselves immortalized at their beloved instrument. The place of the virginal in seventeenth-century England is perhaps best expressed in Samuel Pepys' famous diary. While watching the great fire of London in 1661, he observed that one in three of the lighters on the Thames with household goods on board has "a pair of virginals".

Female musicians of royal blood also went down in history as devotees of the virginal: the best known example is Queen Elizabeth I of England, but also her niece Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, and her granddaughter Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia. The latter's sixteenth-century instrument bearing the emblem of her mother Anne Boleyn, is preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. There can be no better account of what the virginal meant for her than in the memoires of Sir James Melville (1535-1617), who visited her as an ambassador for Mary of Scots, her dangerous rival.

The English queen wanted to know all about Mary and her ability to play the virginal:

She [Elizabeth] asked if she [Mary] played well. I said: "Reasonably well, for a queen".
"That same day after dinner, my lord of Hunsdean drew me up to a quiet gallery, that I might hear some music; but he said he durst not avow it, where I might hear the queen play upon the virginals. But after I had hearkened a while, I took by the tapestry that hung before the door of the chamber, and seeing her back was towards the door, I entered within the chamber, and stood still at the door cheek, and heard her play excellently well; but she left off so soon as she turned about and saw me, and came forward, seeming to strike me with her left hand, and to think shame; alleging that she used not to play before men, but when she was solitary, to eschew melancholy..."

If the harpsichord is "king of all the instruments in the world" - as G.M. Trabaci, Naples 1615, would have it -, then the gracious virginal must surely be his spouse...

According to Donald Boalch (1956) the Gabriel Townsend virginal, London, 1641 (inv. M1591) belonged to Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia. Even as a child she had loved the theatre and masked balls and she was a gifted musician. In fact her teacher was none other than John Bull. As a Scottish contemporary of hers tells us: "she also diligently cultivates music". The virginal is thought to have been given to her by her brother King Charles I of England. As far as we know, this virginal is the oldest of its kind.

Though the instrument is rather plain on the outside, in keeping with English tastes, it is richly decorated on the inside. The lid is painted with a musical, mythological scene showing Orpheus -  who bears a striking resemblance to King Charles - charming the wild animals, birds, trees and even stones with his lyrical playing, while the keyboard cover depicts what appears to be a courtly group on an island and ships on the sea. On the embossed gilded papers stuck onto the keyboard and above the soundboard of the royal instrument we recognize in the repeat pattern the coat of arms of the Plantagenets, the illustrious predecessors of the English house of which Elizabeth was so proud, under the addition of the initials "E.R.", "Elizabeth Regina". However, the Tudor shield bearers - the lion and the dragon - refer to her father's great predecessor, that other Elizabeth.

This virginal is of the 'spinet' type customary in England with the keyboard on the left.

Webmaster's note: the sound recording below comes from mim CD006. On this CD Bob van Asperen plays four virginals belonging to the mim, including the Gabriel Townsend Virginal inv.1591. The CD is on sale in our museum shop.

virginal inv.1591
virginal inv.1591, detail of the painting on the inner side of the cover