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Young Lady seated at the virginal, Johannes Vermeer

Johannes, Jan or Johan Vermeer (1632 – December 1675), Dutch

The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book

The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, an early 17th-century English manuscript for keyboard music, is yet another compendium of musical pieces that combine the pieces of several composers.  As I have mentioned in others blogs, a compendium is a monument to a period of music.  The Fiztwilliam is named after library antiquarian Viscount FitzWilliam who bequeathed the manuscript collection to Cambridge University, in 1816.  It is now preserved in the Fitzwilliam Museum, at Cambridge.

An Elizabethan Compendium

However, we tend to associate the Fiztwilliam with Elizabeth I (7 September 1533 – 24 March 1603, Queen regnant of England and Ireland from 17 November 1558 until her death.  Elizabeth I did not marry.  In fact, the FitzWilliam was first entitled Queen Elizabeth’s Virginal Book.  But Elizabeth, who died in 1603, never owned a copy of the book.  Elizabeth I was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, a  music lover, as was her father, and a learned woman.  She was fond of dancing: the galliard, in particular.


Francis Tregian the Younger or William Byrd

The Fiztwilliam Virginal Manuscript contains an impressive 297 pieces and one blank page numbered 298. It was probably compiled by Francis Tregian the Younger, a recusant and amateur musician.  Recusants were persons who refused to attend Anglican services.  Tregian may indeed have copied the pieces, but if he did, he stopped in 1618, the year of his death.  The Fitzwilliam contains pieces composed between 1562 and 1612.  The manuscript is also attributed to William Byrd.  So its origin is disputed.

“Virginal” as a generic term

I should indicate that the word “virginal” is often used to designate the clavichord, the harpsichord, and other plucked instruments.  Among these “virginals,” the quietest is the clavichord.  The virginal and the clavichord are rectangular instruments, but the harpsichord resembles grand pianos.  However some are upright instruments higher than the highest upright pianos.

Late Composers

Pianists do play Couperin, Scarlatti, Handel, Bach and other composers who were active before the piano was developed.  For instance, J. S. Bach’s keyboard music was composed for the harpsichord or the organ.  The famed Goldberg Variations were written for a two-keyboard harpsichord.  Although he composed for the piano, some of Mozart’s compositions can be played on the harpsichord.

Composers represented in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book

The FitzWilliam (now called Fitzwilliam) contains pieces by composers who are relatively unknown to pianists: Doctor John Bull, Ferdinando Richardson, Giles Farnaby, John Munday, Peter Philips, Thomas Morley, William Byrd and a few anonymous composers.

Specifically, pieces and composers featured in the Fitzwilliam are the Galiarda, the Galliardo, the Pavana, the Fantasia, the Maske, the Corranto, the Gigge, Variations, Preludes, a few liturgical pieces with a title such as “Barafostus’ Dreame,” ” Pakington’s Pownde,” “Ladye Riche,” “Put Up Thy Dagger Jemy,” the “New Sa-Hoo,” “Quadlings Delight,”  “The Ghost,” “The Earle of Oxford’s Marche,” by William Byrd, “Lachrymae Pavan,” by John Dowland (arranged by Giles Farnaby) and others.


So the “virginals” required their own composers, but it could also be said that they required and still require their own performers.  When pianists try to play a “virginal,” usually the harpsichord,they can no longer bite into the keys and have to execute the ornaments in a different manner than on the piano.  The two instruments are keyboard instruments, but one “touches” the virginal and related instruments and “plays” the piano.

Other Collections

There are other collections of music for the virginal, such as collections compiled by composers:  Will Forster’s Virginal Book, Clement Matchett’s Virginal Book, Anne Cromwell’s Virginal Book, and the famous Parthenia or the Maydenhead of the first musicke that ever was printed for the Virginalls, printed in 1612.

Parthenia, 1612

(please click on the title to hear pieces from the Fitzwilliam)
February 24, 2012