William Mitchell

Harpsichords

English Virginal
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VIRGINALS AFTER STEPHEN KEENE (1668)

The virginal is a ‘relative’ of the harpsichord. Both instruments share the same action mechanism: they both pluck strings by way of quills held in jacks and so the sound is obtained by the same principle and the musical effect can be very similar. The main differentiating characteristics between the virginal and the harpsichord are that:

  1. 1. The case construction of the harpsichord is irregular, being wide at the front and tapering to a tail at the rear, whereas the virginal is very often rectangular and uniform in shape (there are, however, examples of hexagonal, pentagonal and even polygonal virginals, just to confuse the issue).
  2. 2. The strings of the harpsichord run away from the player, but across the player on the virginal.
  3. 3. The disposition of the harpsichord is usually a combination of eight and four foot stops, while the virginal contains a single eight foot choir.

Another relative of both the harpsichord and virginal is the spinet and it is usually characterised by its elegant ‘wing’ shape. The Italians seem to have been the first producers of spinets and virginals with their pentagonal spinet of 1523 and subsequent virginal of 1581. The Flemish tradition began with the spinet dated 1548 by Ioes Karest and this laid the foundations for their later, well-known virginals. Almost one hundred years later, Gabriel Townsend pioneered the craft in England by constructing a virginal in the year 1641.

The position of the keyboard in a virginal is extremely important since it dictates the location of the jacks, their plucking point, distance from the nut bridge and, consequently, the tone of the instrument.

Many Italian virginals had their keyboards positioned (like their spinets) in the middle and almost always protruding beyond the main casework. Flemish virginals were constructed mainly with the keyboard recessed in the middle, but occasionally placed to the right hand side – these latter instruments being known as muselars.

The English appeared to be only actively engaged in virginal-making from 1641 to 1679 and seem to have been initially influenced by the Flemish ‘spinetten’ (an unusual virginal variant whose keyboards were found on the left hand side).

English virginals differ in principle, therefore, from the Italian and mainstream Flemish by always having the keyboard recessed and well to the left. This means that the plucking points of the jacks of the Italian and Flemish virginals are well away from the nut bridge (this bridge being located to the left of the soundboard), particularly in the bass and, in fact, close to the centre of the string in the case of the muselar.

I chose to make virginals after the Stephen Keene instrument of 1668 (found in the Russell Collection at the University of Edinburgh) for reasons that are revealed below.

The sound offered by the muselar is very round and plum-like with a strong fundamental and few upper partials. It is well-suited to early compositions such as those found in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, but not versatile enough to be used for works much beyond the mid baroque period or for general playing with other instruments. One practical problem with its action is that the jacks have to dampen the strings at a point of high amplitude and this makes the cut-off rather buzzy and rough, especially in the bass. Furthermore, the height regulation of the jacks is somewhat critical to ensure a perfect return of the quill beneath the string.

The tones of other Flemish virginals and their Italian counterparts, whose keyboards are more to the centre, are less tubby than the muselar. The Italians, particularly, have a most beautiful sound – closer to that of the rear eight foot choir of a Flemish harpsichord by virtue of their long scaling – and their bright, percussive tone with more upper partials can be used for many periods and purposes. However, a major drawback is that the plucking point in the bass is well towards the centre making the tone muddy in this area and does not allow a clean, crisp damping of the strings.

Long scaling is an important factor when trying to obtain a really good tone and the Keene virginal with a scaling of 35.3 cms at c2 is longer than many. In addition, the instrument is superior to others I have encountered in three main areas: soundboard size; frame construction and tuning pin positions; compass.

Soundboard size. The soundboard area of most virginals and particularly spinets are small and provide only a limited enhancement of the tone. The Keene virginal has a large soundboard which, by careful repositioning of some of the bars underneath, I have made freer to provide a better acoustic and greater amplification of the tone.

Frame construction and tuning pin positions. In the virginals of Italy, Flanders and England (with the single exception of our Stephen Keene virginal), the tuning pins are located completely on the right hand side of the casing, well down into the front corner. Keene had the brilliant idea of dividing these pins evenly between the left-hand side for the bass and tenor strings, then the right hand side for the alto and treble notes. This means that the instrument contains a double wrestplank in the shape of an inverted ‘V’ and makes the stresses much more evenly distributed, thus preventing the case from flexing diagonally as badly as others and allowing more stable and long-lasting tuning.

Compass. Unlike Italian and Flemish instruments, the Keene virginal has a generous keyboard of compass GG to d3 chromatic which means that you can play virtually the whole of the baroque and earlier repertoire.

These last three features can be seen in the following photograph.


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