The virginal or muselar was widely spread throughout northern Europe in the seventeenth century, and belonged to people of every social stratum: it could even be found at the barbershop. The harpsichord, on the other hand, was a luxury instrument. The following description of the great fire of London in 1666 is taken from the diary of Samuel Pepys:
‘2 (September) (Lord’s day). (…) I (…) saw a lamentable fire. (…) Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that layoff. (…) Having staid, and in an hour’s time seen the fire: rage every way, and nobody, to my sight, endeavouring to quench it, but to remove their goods, and leave all to the fire. (…) River full of lighters and boats taking in goods, and good goods swimming in the water, and only I observed that hardly one lighter or boat in three that had the goods of a house in, but there was a pair of Virginalls in it.’
The origin of the word ‘virginal’ is unknown. It was claimed at the time that the name derived from the fact that the instrument was particularly well suited to young women, and it is true that several of Vermeer’s paintings feature moving images of virginals and their young female players. Another possibility is that the name derives from the Latin ‘virga’, meaning ‘jack’ (a slim wooden blade with a piece of bird quill at the top, which plucks the harpsichord string). In England the term ‘virginal’ was used for any keyboard instrument with plucked strings.
The King’s Hunt
The Quadran Paven
Galiard to the Quadran Paven