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Re: GG:what is/are virginals?

On Sat, 25 May 1996 kb@terminus.cs.umb.edu wrote:

>     pieces on a virginal-- what does one sound like? 
> ... goes and puts on the one virginal record he owns ... (excerpts from
> `The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book', played by Blanche Winogron). it sounds
> like a ``light'' harpsichord on the recording. Somewhere between a
> clavichord and a harpsichord? But if I bet if you gave me a blindfold
> test, I couldn't tell the difference. (Which says more about me than the
> instruments :-)

How ancient is that recording?  Apparently you haven't heard a virginal
played live recently.  :)

A virginal usually sounds darker than a harpsichord of the same area/time. 
More fundamental tone, fewer high harmonics.  That's due to the fact that
the virginal plucks the string farther from the bridge.  The tone is very
distinctive; difficult to confuse with either harpsichord or clavichord. 

See the information page at http://www.geocities.com/Paris/1685/

Also read Frank Hubbard's book, _Three centuries of harpsichord making_.
(Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, [c1967])

> Virginals generally have two manuals (``double virginals''), but stacked
> one on top of each other, almost directly above, with several inches in
> between. The whole instrument is usually 4-6 feet long, the keyboards
> are about half of that (on the right, on every one I've seen). The
> strings go the length of the instrument.

No, it is rare for virginals to have two manuals.  The instrument is 4-6
feet *wide*, and less than 2 feet front to back.  Mine (an Italian model)
has the keyboard in the middle. 

> It was traditionally a instrument played by women (every period picture
> I've seen has a woman playing it, and my recording is by a woman
> :-). Perhaps some vague metaphorical resemblance to harps?

That business about it being played traditionally by women is, I believe,

> Here's an excerpt from the liner notes about the instruments used in
> the recording:
>   ... The combined range of the two levels of keyboard provides the player
>   with a number of possibilities for tonal contrast without the aid of any
>   mechanical devices, such as pedals or stops. The musical interest,
>   however, is largely sustained by the skill and artistry of the player,
>   who must create the illusion of dynamic change in most instances through
>   touch, pacing, and clever finger action.

Apparently your recording (with its notes) is from the 50's or 60's, when
it was still fashionable to clog up one's harpsichord interpretation with
numerous stop changes.  The reference to pedals is telling. 

>   Though the virginal can be described as the miniature form of the
>   harpsichord from the point of view of jack action (the word ``virginal''
>   in Elizabethan days was a generic term for any of the plucked keyboard
>   instruments), there are nevertheless a number of important differences
>   in construction between them, all of which affect the character of the
>   ultimate sound. The most significant are: (1) the smaller rectangular
>   chest of the virginals allows for a more advantageous point of contact
>   of the plectra (the plucking device attached to the jacks activated by
>   the keys) in relation to the bridge; and (2) the virginal has a single
>   set of strings, whereas the larger instrument has at least three. While
>   the multitude of stringing and mechanical means for ``registration''
>   (i.e., color change) of the larger harpsichord make for greater variety
>   of effect and seemingly richer sonorities, its basic sound governed by
>   the longer strings and profusion of sympathetic vibration is quite
>   removed from the clarify and sweetness so characteristic of the
>   virginals. 

Some of that is OK, and some of that is bologna. 

"More advantageous" point of contact?!  That could be argued either way,
with whatever one happens to like.  The harpsichord plucks the strings
nearer the bridge than the virginal does.  It's part of the builder's
tonal design of the instrument.  There can be good harpsichords, bad
harpsichord, good virginals, and bad virginals.  "Advantageous" is
relative.  :) The difference in plucking point is illustrated easily on a
guitar; nearer the middle of the string, the tone sounds like a

And the harpsichord doesn't have a "profusion of sympathetic
vibration"...the strings are damped when not being played.  A jack at rest
has its damper resting on the string. 

> Karl
> (who owns one of three dolce melos (another early keyboard instrument)
> in existence (as far as I know :-)

I'm interested in hearing more about the dolce melos.  What does it look
like and sound like? 

By the way, the harpsichord (a Wittmayer) on which Gould recorded Handel
wasn't a very good example of a harpsichord.

Dr. Bradley Lehman, bpl@umich.edu   http://www-personal.umich.edu/~bpl/  
(A.Mus.D in harpsichord)