There are 22 surviving
English virginals. The signed instruments range in date from 1638 to 1684,
but there are two unsigned and undated instruments which I attribute to
the period 1570-1590, making them true Elizabethan virginals.
The instruments are all superficially very similar. The casework is usually of oak, with coffered lids (although some have been flattened in later alterations), and keywell flaps attached to the baseboard. When closed the instruments have a sombre appearance - the dark varnished oak offset only by iron strap hinges and lockplates. However, when opened the instruments reveal a blaze of colour. The soundboards are decorated with flowers and birds, as well as one or more gilt roses, the keywell, faceboards and soundwell are decorated with gilt embossed paperes and mouldings, usually or red cedar or oak, occasionally pine, and the lid and keywell flap are decorated with polychrome paintings. The painting style is very naive, but totally suited to the overall impression one gets of the instruments.
The majority of the instruments have boxwood natural keytops with dark accidentals, occasionally inlaid. Three instruments have snakewood naturals and solid ivory accidentals, and two instruments have ebony naturals with ivory accidentals. However, one of these instruments has a replaced keyboard (although the accidentals are original), and in this example, the natural keytops may well have been snakewood also.
The compass of English virginals has always been large compared to other instruments of the same period. The earlier instruments are usually 49 notes, C – c’’’, with other alternatives like C – d’’’, C – e’’’, G’/B’ – c’’’ or G’/B’ – d’’’ appearing. Later instruments usually have a 55 note compass, G’/B’ – f’’’, although the two Rewallin instruments both have a G’/B’ – d’’’ range, and three instruments from the 1660s have long chromatic basses. The 1664 Player instrument has a G’ – d’’’ compass, the 1664 Hatley has a F’G’ – c’’’ compass, and the largest range is found in the 1668 Keene, which is F’G’ – d’’’.
The pitch levels found in the English virginals follows that of the organs of the period. It appears that about half of the surviving instruments were designed to be played at a pitch about one to two semitones above modern pitch, at about 473 Hz. This is the same level as English quire pitch. The remaining instruments are fairly evenly divided between pitches at the three semitone levels below that, ie. 448 Hz, 423 Hz, and 400 Hz. A single instrument, the 1638 Thomas White example, is the orphan of a "mother-and-child" double virginal combination, and was tuned to a high pitch, a fifth above quire pitch.
With the exception of Thomas White, who has 5 surviving instruments (1638, 1642, 1644, 1651 and 1653), no maker has more than two extant examples. Several makers - James White (1656 and 1661), Adam Leuersidge (1666 and 1670), Stephen Keene (1668 and 1675) and Charles Rewallin (1675 and 1679) have two examples. The other surviving instruments were built by Gabriel Townsend (1641), John Loosemore (1655), Thomas Body (1662), John Player (1664), Robert Hatley (1664), Philip Jones (1671), and Thomas Bolton (1684). The two unsigned instruments mentioned above, almost certainly built by different makers who were, however, working in the same workshop tradition, make up the 22 survivors. By good fortune the great majority of these instruments are in public ownership and can be seen by general visitors.
Two other instruments need special mention. There are a pair of harpsichords, the elder by Lodewyk Theewes dated 1579 (now in the V&A Museum, London), and the other by John Hasard, 1622 (at Knole Park, Sevenoaks, Kent) which pre-date all of the dated virginals. They are both extremely interesting instruments in their own rights. The Theewes was originally built with three registers - 2x8' 1x4' - and has the lower guide sliding by means of drawstops to engage the registers. Theewes was working in the same tradition as the makers of the two unsigned virginals, but almost certainly didn't make them. Instead, those instruments were likely made by apprentices or journeymen who had worked with Theewes. The Hasard is essentially just a shell of an instrument, but it also contained three registers - extraordinarily with one set of strings pitched an octave lower than the other two. The instrument also had a large 53 note compass. I believe the keyboard was G’A’ – c’’’, with the long set of strings tuned a fourth below quire pitch, and the two higher sets at a fifth above quire pitch (the same level as the 1638 White instrument. The stand under the Hasard is particularly attractive and well made.
Seven virginals are in reasonable playing order and although this is a high number percentage wise (compared to other schools of seventeenth century instruments) the virginals are still something of an uncertain quality, sound-wise. Some have been strung with the wrong treble material, and therefore play at the wrong pitch. Those that are set up well have certain characteristics in common, producing a transparent yet full tone, with something of a "woody" character. It is certainly attractive, and quite different to virginals made in other countries.