In addition to the instruments that I make and the pianos I service, I’m fortunate to find other interesting instruments on my workbench from time to time. Not only do I get to play with other people’s toys but each encounter teaches me something new and becomes a catalyst to new instrument ideas.
Recently, I received this virginal for repair. A virginal is a simpler, earlier type of harpsichord with the strings parallel to the keyboard on the long side of its rectangular body. The sixty inch long case is made of solid mahogany with a spruce soundboard. Four lathe turned legs screw into threaded sockets on the bottom corners. There is a fret sawn music desk (not shown) but no other decoration or top lid (dusty!).
Each key plays a single string by elevating a “jack” with a tiny “quill” that plucks the string. When a key is pressed you can feel the “pluck” and the string sustains only as long as the key is held.
The body of a jack is made of a Delrin type of plastic material with a spring hinged tongue that holds the tiny triangular quill. The jacks rest in rectangular openings in the soundboard adjacent to their respective strings and intersect the key ends below by a thin metal rod.
When a key is pressed, the jack rises and the quill plucks the string. As the jack returns by gravity, the tongue hinges back allowing the quill to pass the string, the small felt damper to mute the string, and the quill to reset.
This seemingly simple mechanical arrangement requires a lot of maintenance. The jacks must be regulated for a consistent feel and voiced for a consistent sound. The fine threaded rods that intersect the keys adjust the quills’ height and fine threaded screws on the top of each jack adjust the distant of the quills’ tips to the strings. The quills themselves are wedged in the tongues. Their shape and flexibility affect tone and volume so they are voiced by trimming and scraping with a sharp knife.
The keyboard is arranged like a piano keyboard but with shorter, narrower keys all of the same color. The fifty-four keys range from C2 to F6 and are tuned by the owner to A-440 in equal temperament. There are no pedals or other means of expression. With long strings under fairly low tension, it’s a quiet instrument with a distinctive sound that you can feel with your fingers as well as hear with your ears.
This instrument usually resides in the owner’s parlor but on occasion, the four legs were removed and it was transported to musical gatherings. It had not been played or had any attention for a number of years and as I received it, required some string replacement, a cleanup, and a lot of regulation.