Virginals & harpsichords

We know from its title page that “Parthenia or the Maydenhead” was “the first musicke that ever was printed for the Virginalls” (ca 1612), and numerous manuscript “virginal books” have come down to us. But what is the “first musicke that ever was printed for the Harpsichord”? And when did “virginal(s)” exclusively take on the specific meaning it now has, rather than that of any quilled keyboard instrument?


Re virginals, there is a very long article in Grove Music Online which details the linguistics and naming and usage in all the different languages as well as physical information about design and construction. I’d paste it here but I think it violates copyright. I have full access courtesy State Library of Victoria and I am sure many other world libraries offer it. Although I find Grove rather contentious on many topics this is a well written article by Edwin Ripin, Denzil Wright, and Darryl Martin from 2001.

The utterly ridiculous mention of difference due to boxes and legs is clearly the fault of the Oxford English Dictionary II, normally a good source, but in this case just plain stupid:

“A keyed musical instrument (common in England in the 16th and 17th centuries), resembling a spinet, but set in a box or case without legs.”

Complete tosh. Surprising

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Thanks, Andrew.

The Grove article is interesting, indeed, and offers the following
distinction between virginal and spinet (though this was a question
raised in another thread):

“In contrast to those of a spinet, the long bass strings of a virginal
are at the front, making it possible to build the instrument in a wide
variety of shapes, from squat rectangles to more or less graceful
polygons, depending on whether the keyboard is inset or projecting.”

The problem is that not everyone agrees. For others, the two terms are
interchangeable. For others yet, a virginal is rectangular (which is
perhaps where the OED’s idea of a “box” comes from). In the Flemish
tradition, the spinet(t) is a type of virginal (like the muselar, but
with the keyboard to the left). Both Hubbard and Russel in their
respective well-known books both use the term “spinet” for the polygonal

Le 30/01/2022 06:28, Andrew Bernard via The Jackrail écrit :

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Indeed, Dennis, Andrew, not everybody agrees. In the English tradition, in the “virginal” the bass strings are at the front, and the jacks are placed on a diagonal. “Muselar” is the same with the keyboard on the r.h.s. so that the strings are plucked very near to their centre. “Spinet” is a relatively more recent instrument, being a harpsichord squeezed sideways, with diagonally placed strings (bass to the left) and the jacks parallel to the keyboard (so much so that it is no issue to have two stops, although this is very rarely found). The good sense of these names is that they do not depend on subtleties of case shape, but on the crucial matter of how strings and action are laid out.

It would be nice to agree to the above very sensible names, and I tend to use them that way.

The problem is, of course, what happens with other languages. For example, in Italy “virginale” is virtually never used: then name all plucked-string instruments that are not a harpsichord are called “spinetta”.

(Not to speak of the old Spanish tradition of calling “clavicordio” both the clavichord and the harpsichord. Luckily this confusion is being left aside in modern times).

I thought Spanish for ‘clavichord’ is, or was, ‘manicordio’ (with
various spellings such as ‘manocordio’). ¿Is this wrong?


No it isn’t, you are correct, Stuart, with many variations along the centuries.
AFAIK today everybody says “clavicordio” for clavichord and “clave” for harpsichord (some say “clavecín”, but this was derived from WL records and is nowadays accepted as a best-avoided “francesismo”).