The term ‘Virginalists’ may at first be somewhat misleading: the Virginalists were not, in the literal and limiting sense, composers of music for the virginals. Two points are essential: the term ‘virginals’ did not necessarily or exclusively refer to that instrument, but to keyboard instruments generally; nearly all of the Virginalists were primarily organists. Virtually all of their keyboard music can be played on the particular instrument called the virginals (or virginal), and it would be very appropriate to do so, as the virginals was the most popular keyboard instrument of the period; but most of it can be played equally well on the organ, and to do so would be equally appropriate, since the organ was the most important instrument of the period. And it would by no means be inappropriate to play their works on the harpsichord or the clavichord.
The harpsichord has (very roughly) the shape of a grand piano, but is much lighter and significantly smaller. It produces its distinctive sound by plucking the strings with plectra as keys are depressed – as opposed to the tangents of the clavichord (which press the strings and remain in contact) and the hammers of the piano (which strike and bounce back). Harpsichords usually have more than one ‘stop’ (set of plectra and/or strings), each producing a different tone-colour or pitch. They may have one or two ‘manuals’ (or keyboards). Harpsichords were certainly made in England during the Renaissance, but a number of fine instruments were imported. The countries famous for harpsichord production (Flanders and Italy in the Renaissance, joined later by France and Germany) tended to produce instruments with characteristic qualities. It is fair to say that Flemish instruments have a brighter, more carrying tone with a longer sustain; Italian instruments are more mellow or ‘bell-like’, with fewer overtones, and a shorter sustain – the note dies more quickly.
A virginals is essentially a small harpsichord. It nearly always has a single set of strings (which run parallel to the keyboard, whereas the strings of a harpsichord run at right angles to the keyboard), and so only operates at one pitch and (almost always) with a single tone colour. Because of the comparative shortness of the strings, the tone is less full than that of the harpsichord; nevertheless, a good virginals has a beautiful combination of clarity and delicacy. Virginals were made in England throughout the period, but – as with harpsichords – a number were also imported from both Flanders and Italy. Whether these were necessarily the best instruments or simply the instruments bought by the most wealthy citizens of the time is open to some debate, but it seems likely many of the finer instruments in Renaissance England were imported. The famous instrument known as Queen Elizabeth’s Virginals (now in the Victoria and Albert Museum) was in fact made in Venice. Flemish instruments, particularly those from the Ruckers and Couchet workshops, were also outstanding – and remain famous today. Generally, but not invariably, Italian instruments were trapezoid in shape, whereas Flemish (and English) instruments were rectangular. Two kinds of instrument with very different characters were produced in Flanders, although they are identical in appearance except for the key issue, which is the position of the keyboard. Those with the keyboard to the left strike the strings at roughly the same point as in English and Italian instruments; those with the keyboard to the right (known as muselar virginals) strike the keys at a correspondingly different point, producing a distinctively mellow tone colour – often described as ‘plummy’.
The organs of Renaissance England were, not surprisingly, of a radically different character from those normally seen and heard today: they were very much smaller in size, used a much lighter wind pressure, and produced – with the notable exception of one or two stops – a much more transparent and fluty tone. (A ‘stop’ is, broadly speaking, a particular row of pipes operating at a given pitch and having a certain tone colour.) The fortunes of the organ in England followed the fortunes of the church, declining with the Reformation but with something of a revival in the seventeenth century. Thomas Tomkins was a key participator in that revival, as Worcester Cathedral commissioned a new instrument from the foremost builder of the time, Thomas Dallam. The organ had two manuals, Great and Chair, with a total of thirteen stops. The full specification is known, although some of the pitches are uncertain. There were diapasons (or principals) – two at eight-foot, two at four-foot, and two at two-foot pitches, as well as one twelfth and one fifteenth. A stopped recorder completed the Great Organ, all of whose pipes were made of metal. The Chair Organ consisted of a wood diapason at eight-foot pitch, with metal principals of four-foot, two-foot, and one-foot pitches. Again there was a stopped flute pipe, made of wood, which was at four-foot pitch. The recorder stop is generally taken to be an eight foot, but this is debatable; and although the sizes of pipes are normally referred to for convenience according to their modern equivalents, there is clear evidence that the organ was based on a ten-foot foundation tone: that would mean that the pitch of the whole organ was significantly below the modern norm.
The clavichord is an instrument that might at first sight be confused with a rectangular virginals – though clavichords in Renaissance times were generally smaller. Close inspection of the action, however, will reveal the very significant difference: clavichords have metal tangents inserted into the ends of the keys, which produce sound, and pitch, by pressing against the string and remaining in contact with it throughout the duration of the note. It is the quietest and most intimate of keyboard instruments, the better examples producing a beautifully delicate lute-like sound. While the clavichord was undoubtedly a more significant instrument in Germany than in England, it was by no means unknown in this country. Some recent scholarly work has suggested that the clavichord is more important to English Renaissance music than is usually believed to be the case.
The spinet is less relevant to the Virginalists, but is included for the sake of completeness - and because it occupies an important place in the history of music-making in England. It is essentially another instrument of the harpsichord family, in size and character somewhere between the virginals and the harpsichord itself. It became popular in England towards the close of the seventeenth century, gradually supplanting the virginals. Whereas the strings of a harpsichord run straight away from the player at right angles to the keyboard, and the strings of the virginals pass from left to right in front of the player and parallel to the keyboard, the unique feature of the spinet is that the strings run diagonally away from the keyboard. Consequently, longer strings and a fuller tone are possible: so the sound of a spinet is generally closer to that of a harpsichord. As is often the case, however, the straightforward distinctions are complicated by the fact that the term has had more than one use. In particular, the term spinet or spinet virginals has been used to distinguish those virginals which have their keyboards to the right (muselar virginals, with a uniquely mellow tone) from those that have their keyboards to the left (spinet virginals, with a brighter tone). Some spinets are trapezoid; the larger ones tend to have a characteristic and particularly graceful wing shape - widely known as bentside spinets. Such spinets became the standard keyboard instrument for domestic music-making in England during the baroque period.