Saturday, January 9, 8540

Ireland - Dublin Virginal Composer (b. c. 1540)

Ireland (b. c. 1540) - Dublin Virginal Book (c. 1570)

Variations on the Romanesca

Dublin (meaning Town of the Hurdled Ford), is both the largest city and the capital of Ireland.

It is located near the midpoint of Ireland's east coast, at the mouth of the River Liffey and at the centre of the Dublin Region. Founded as a Viking settlement, the city has been Ireland's primary city for most of the island's history since medieval times. Today, it is an economic, administrative and cultural centre for the island of Ireland and has one of the fastest growing populations of any European capital city.


The virginal or virginals (the plural form does not necessarily denote more than one instrument) was a type of harpsichord popular in Europe during the late Medieval and Renaissance periods.

The virginal is a smaller and simpler rectangular form of the harpsichord with only one string per note running parallel to the keyboard on the long side of the case. Many, if not most, of the instruments were constructed without legs, and would be placed on a table for playing. Later models were built with their own stands.

The mechanism of the virginal is identical to that of the harpsichord in that its wire strings are plucked by jacks. Its case, however, is rectangular, and the typically single eight foot pitch choir of strings, with one string per note, runs roughly parallel to the keyboard. This arrangement causes the strings to be plucked nearer the middle rather than at one end, as in the case of the harpsichord, and produces a richer, flute-like tone.

The origin of the name is obscure. One theory derives it from the Latin virga meaning a rod, perhaps referring to the wooden jacks that rest on the ends of the keys. However, this theory is unproved.

Another possibility is that the name derives from the instrument's association with female performers, or its sound, which has been likened by some musical theorists to the sound of a young girl's voice (vox virginalis).

Other views are that the term comes from the word virgin, as it was most commonly played by young women, or that the name derives from the Virgin Mary as it was used by nuns to accompany hymns in honour of the Virgin.

In England during the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, any stringed keyboard instrument was often described as a virginals, and could equally well apply to a harpsichord or possibly even a clavichord or spinet. Thus the masterworks of William Byrd and his contemporaries were often played on full-size, Italian or Flemish-style harpsichords and not just on the virginal as we call it today. Contemporary nomenclature often referred to a pair of virginal, which implied a single instrument, possibly a harpsichord with two registers, or a double virginal.

Like the harpsichord, the virginal has its origins in the medieval psaltery to which a keyboard was applied, probably in the 15th century. The first mention of the word is in Paulus Paulirinus of Prague's (1413-1471) Tractatus de musica of around 1460 where he writes: "The virginal is an instrument in the shape of a clavichord, having metal strings which give it the timbre of a clavicembalo. It has 32 courses of strings set in motion by striking the fingers on projecting keys, giving a dulcet tone in both whole and half steps. It is called a virginal because, like a virgin, it sounds with a gentle and undisturbed voice." The Oxford English Dictionary records its first mention in English in 1530, when King Henry VIII purchased five such instruments.

Small early virginal were played either in the lap, or more commonly, rested on a table, but nearly all later examples were provided with their own stands.

The heyday of the virginal was the latter half of the 16th century to the later 17th century until the high baroque period when it was eclipsed in England by the bentside spinet and in Germany by the clavichord.

A selection of English "virginal books" includes:

Fitzwilliam Virginal Book
My Ladye Nevells Booke
The Mulliner Book
Will Forster's Virginal Book
Priscilla Bunbury's Virginal Book
Elizabeth Roger's Virginal Book

[8543 Byrd / 8540 Dublin Romanesca]