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Musical Instruments in Vermeer's Paintings: The Virginals

by Adelheid Rech

Vermeer and the Virginals

The Music Lesson, Johannes Vermeerfig. 1 The text on the lid of the virginals in Vermeer's Music Lesson reads:
MVSICA LETITIAE CO[ME]S MEDICINA DOLOR[VM] (music is the companion of joy, balm for sorrow)

An inventory of instruments in the surviving three dozen paintings by Vermeer would include two lutes, a harpsichord, three bass viols, five citterns, a baroque guitar, a trumpet, a recorder, and three muselar virginals.

The virginals, also called virginal, is a box-shaped keyboard instrument while the more familiar harpsichord looks more like a piano and is triangular in shape. Closed, the typical Flemish virginals looks like an elongated linen closet. When open, the visual effect is striking. Unlike the harpsichord and spinet, the virginals' single set of strings runs nearly parallel to the keyboard, which is often surrounded by decorative block-printed papers. These papers also cover the front of the case and line the inside of the fallboard as well as the case above the soundboard, and the interior of the lid. Mottoes were a frequent embellishment, such as the one seen on the lid of the virginals in Vermeer's Music Lesson (fig. 1).

The origin of the word virginals is obscure but it is usually linked to the fact that the instrument was frequently played by young women. Another theory suggests that its name derives from the Latin word "virga" meaning "rod," referring to the jacks or wooden shafts that rest on the ends of the keys and control the plucking mechanism. Virginals are described either as spinet virginals (the more common type) or muselar virginals."The Virginal," Encyclopædia Britannica. May 28, 2018. Early virginals did not have legs (fig. 2), and rested upon tables. "Italian virginals, often polygonal in shape, differed from the rectangular Flemish and English virginals in having the keyboard centrally placed, thus producing a characteristic mellow tone. Sometimes two virginals were built together, a small one fitting like a drawer into the case of the larger. The smaller played at a higher pitch and could sometimes be mounted over the keys of the larger virginal so that one player could control both. Virginals were particularly popular in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, where the name was also used generically to mean any harpsichord."Grant O'Brien, Ruckers: A Harpsichord and Virginal Building Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 130.

Gerrit Dou, A Woman playing a Clavichordfig. 2 A Woman playing a Clavichord (detail)
Gerrit Dou
Oil on panel, 29.9 x 37.7 cm.
Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

Launch video

Renaissance Music on Historical Virginals
Performed by: Bob van Asperen

Launch video

Les Barricades Mystérieuses
by Couperin Hanneke van Proosdij
Performed by: Hanneke van Proosdij, harpsichord

In seventeenth-century Dutch, both virginals and clavichords were called clavecijn, clavesingel, or clavecimbael, which understandably leads to confusion. This explains the title of Vermeer's painting in Diego Duarte's collection, described as "a small painting with a lady playing the clavecin, with accessories." Of the thirty-five compositions by Vermeer, three virginals are represented: The Music Lesson (fig. 3), A Lady Seated at a Virginals (fig. 4) and A Lady Standing at a Virginal (fig. 5). The keyboard instrument in Vermeer's Concert is not a virginals but rather a harpsichord. The virginals of The Music Lesson was constructed by the Ruckers family. About one hundred are known to exist today (fig. 6).

The Music Lesson, Johnnes Vermeerfig. 3 The Music Lesson (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1662–1665
Oil on canvas, 73.3 x 64.5 cm.
The Royal Collection, The Windsor Castle

The virginals in Vermeer's paintings are of the muselar type. Because the keyboard is fairly high up, it was not unusual to play standing; the seated position is not ergonomically sound, with her elbows lower than her hands, which cannot t be very comfortable. While the virginal and harpsichord are both keyboard instruments, they have distinct differences. Sound production varies between the two instruments. In the case of harpsichord, pressing a key causes strings to be plucked by quills or plectra, resulting in a bright sound. In contrast, virginals use quills that are attached to jacks for plucking the strings.. Additionally, harpsichords tend to be larger with horizontal strings, whereas virginals are smaller and feature a compact, rectangular shape with strings running parallel to the keyboard. Harpsichords are less portable because of their size, while virginals are more portable and easier to move. Historically, both instruments were popular during the Renaissance and Baroque periods, but harpsichords continued to evolve and remained in use through later eras, whereas virginals became less common as the harpsichord gained in popularity.

A Lady Seated at a Virginal, Johgannes Vermeerfig. 4 A Lady Seated at a Virginal (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1670–1675
Oil on canvas, 51.5 x 45.5 cm.
National Gallery, London
A Lady Standing at a Virginal, Johannes Vermeerfig. 5 A Lady Standing at a Virginal (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1670–1674
Oil on canvas, 51.7 x 45.2 cm.
National Gallery, London
Critical Assessments: The Music Lessonfig. 6 Virginals (inscription: MUSICA LABORUM DULCE LEVAMEN )
Johannes Ruckers (attributed to)
Poplar, spruce, oak, bone, iron, brass and paper, 150.0 x 48.0 x 22.0 cm
l 106.0 cm × w 42.5 cm × h 78.0 cm
Koninklijk Oudheidkundig Genootschap, Amsterdam

Vermeer's virginals appear so authentically rendered that we can scarcely believe he did not paint them from model. However, such expensive instruments were surely out of his economic reach. Dutch music expert Edwin Buijsen Edwin Buijsen and Louis Peter Grijp, The Hoogsteder Exhibition of Music & Painting in the Golden Age (The Hague/Zwolle: Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder/Waanders, 1994). believes that they could have been seen at the home of the music lover Cornelis Graswinckel, who was related by marriage to Vermeer's patron Pieter van Ruijven. Nor is it impossible that on one occasion Vermeer traveled to nearby The Hague to admire the famous collection of musical instruments belonging to Constantijn Huygens (1596–1687). A study of a large sample of paintings from the Low Countries by Ton Koopman and Lucas van Dijk revealed that ninety percent of the keyboard players are women.

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From the Clavichord to the Modern Piano

There are eseentially two types of virginals construction. In muselar virginals (fig. 7), or muselars, the keyboard is placed to the right, so that the strings are plucked in the middle of their sounding length. "The layout of a muselar, with keyboard towards the right-hand end of the case, gives the same kind of modification of timbre as a guitarist or cittern player plucking further from the bridge of his instrument, developed and enriched by the deep chest-like soundbox. From a rounded piping tone in the treble to a full but slow speaking and undefined bass timbre the muselar sounds so unlike an ordinary harpsichord that many on first hearing it do not associate it with that family of instruments. The idiosyncrasy of tone, articulation and damping make it unfit for very fast or very complex music, and its strong personality and distinct registers seem to suit an open-textured keyboard idiom of melody and an unelaborated bass best of all. In contrast, the spinet virginals have the keyboard on the left plucking close to the end of the string, the sound is more pointed and insistent. This is the more common arrangement, and an instrument described simply as a "virginal" is likely to be a spinet virginal.

Muselar Virginal (fig. 7) Muselar Virginal
Joannes (Jan) Ruckers
Wood, paint, bone, metal, beech, and leather, Height: 24 cm.
Width (parallel to keyboard): 170.8 cm.
Depth (perpendicular to keyboard): 48.8 cm.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Netherlands, being a major hub of trade and commerce, played a crucial role in distributing finely crafted keyboard instruments across Europe, thereby exerting a considerable influence on instrument making in other countries. Virginals, which are smaller and simpler compared to harpsichords, found a special place in domestic settings, often adorned with intricate marquetry and paintings, especially on the insides of their lids.

The era was marked by significant innovation and improvement in instrument design, including enhancements in stringing and action mechanisms, as well as the overall size and shape of the instruments, leading to improvements in both sound quality and playability.

In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, muselar virginals were appreciated for their unique sound quality. In muselar virginals, the placing of the keyboard to the right enables the playing mechanism to create a rich and full sound by plucking the strings right in the middle of their sounding length but this positioning places the action for the left hand in the exact middle of the highly resonant soundboard. This occasionally results in inevitable clicks, faithfully amplified by the soundboard, which can occasionally make rapid left-hand scales somewhat problematic. In addition to mechanical noise, the central plucking point in the bass makes repetition difficult, because the motion of the still-sounding string interferes with the ability of the plectrum to connect again. A rather prejudiced eighteenth-century comment goes so far as to say that instruments "which have the keyboard on the right-hand side are good in the right hand, but grunt in the bass like young pigs."

Based in Antwerp, the Ruckers family was a true dynasty of virginals and harpsichord makers in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. The Ruckers contributed immeasurably to the technical development of existing keyboard instruments; their quality is such that the name of Ruckers is as important to early keyboard instruments as that of Stradivarius is to the violin family. Their instruments have always been valued for the beauty of their resonant, balanced tone—regarded as an ideal in most of Northern Europe—which was achieved through thoroughly masterful designs and excellent craftsmanship, still studied as a model by harpsichord makers today.

Under the influence of Joannes and Andreas Ruckers I, in the seventeenth century, the production of the virginl had reached its peak. Construction became conistent. Painted arabesques and lid paintings were replaced in many instances by block-printed papers, including the dolphin motif (fig. 8) that is represented in many paintings of the period. Studying the numbering systems found on surviving instruments, it has been estimated that the combined output of the Ruckers workshops in a forty-five year period is from three thousand and thirty-six hundred virginals and harpsichords.

Many of the patterns used by the Ruckers family were drawn from Renaissance pattern books printed expressly for the use of decorators, gold and silversmiths, embroiderers, lace-makers, etc.

Dolphin motif, Ruckersfig. 8 A dolphin motif, drawn from Italian pattern books, used to embellish the key well of early Ruckers instruments large virginals and single-manual harpsichords. This motif was used on the virginals in Vermeer's The Music Lesson.

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Trial playing the only original Ruckers virginals in sounding condition, constructed in 1604
Collezione Giuseppe Accardi (Museo Civico Casa Cavassa), Saluzzo, Italy
Performed by: Marius Bartoccini

Discovered in central Italy around the year 2000, the Accardi spinet occupies a unique place in musical heritage, as it is the only six-feet Ruckers virginals restored to its original sounding condition. It was built in the Antwerp workshop of the brothers Joannes and Andreas Ruckers. The date 1604 can be detected amidst  the painted decoration on its soundboard. The original signature has been lost together with the jack rail and rose but, from the style of this painted decoration, it is certainly typical of the early period of the instruments signed by Joannes Ruckers. The keyboard has forty-five keys made of white bone and ebonized bone.

The Ruckers Family (An exhibiton at the Vleeshuis Museum of Antwerp)

From the website of the Vleeshuis Museum of Antwerp

The Ruckers family exerted a profound influence on the production of keyboard instruments in Antwerp from the late sixteenth century to the mid-seventeenth century. Their harpsichords found their way to various European countries, and some even reached as far as South America.

The instruments crafted by Hans, Joannes, and Andreas Ruckers during the first half of the seventeenth century are prominently showcased on a platform located on the ground floor. They are accompanied by harpsichords from Antwerp builders active during the latter half of the eighteenth century, such as Jacobus van den Elsche and Joannes Petrus Bull.

In the heart of the ground floor hall, a selection of seventeenth-century Antwerp harpsichords is displayed on a dedicated platform. The majority of these instruments originate from members of the Ruckers-Couchet family, who played a dominant role in harpsichord production in Antwerp toward the close of the sixteenth century.

The sound boxes of Ruckers harpsichords often feature meticulously painted imitation marble designs. Inside, intricate depictions of flowers and insects adorn the soundboard. Furthermore, decorative papers embellished with arabesques and dolphin motifs, contrasted in black against a white background, are meticulously affixed along the upright boards of the harpsichord, above and alongside the keys, and within the lid's interior.

Hans Ruckers' contemporaries held his instruments in the highest regard, and over time, this appreciation only grew. Subsequent generations of harpsichord builders who continued the family tradition received widespread acclaim. Their instruments were sought after and exported across Europe, and even ventured as far as Latin America.

In France, Ruckers and Couchet instruments gained popularity starting in the seventeenth century. During the eighteenth century, numerous imitations were sold to enthusiasts at extravagant prices. After 1700, a considerable number of Ruckers harpsichords in France and England underwent adaptations to align with the prevailing musical trends. However, these modifications did not diminish the prestige of their Antwerp origin.

Jacques Champion de Chambonnière, the founder of the French harpsichord school, owned a Couchet instrument. Jean-Henry Danglebert (1628–1691), who served as the "Ordinaire de la musique de la chambre du Roy pour le clavessin," possessed a Ruckers harpsichord.

Furthermore, the renowned composer Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (ca. 1665–1729) performed on a 'Flemish' instrument. In his musical diary, the esteemed English musicologist Dr. Charles Burney noted the Ruckers instrument owned by Claude Bénigne Balbastre (1727–1799).

The flourishing of Antwerp's harpsichord construction was closely tied to the city's economic prosperity in the sixteenth century. Initially, the city primarily traded in imported harpsichords from Germany.

The earliest builders of keyboard instruments who established themselves in Antwerp hailed from Germany. Notable among them was Hans Süss, also known as 'van Cuelen,' who settled in Antwerp in 1519. Joost Kareest, active in Antwerp around 1550, likewise originated from Cologne.

Antwerp not only boasted a populace with the potential to acquire such instruments but also offered exceptional export opportunities. In 1557, ten harpsichord builders, including Joost Kareest and his brother, sought membership in the Guild of Saint Luke, an organization representing various artistic professions, including painters, sculptors, and others.

Special Feature

moder virginals

Listen to three audio files below featuring period music for the virginals, exclusively selected and performed for the Essential Vermeer website by Joop Klaassen. Mr. Klaassen is a contributor to the Stichting Clavecimbel Genootschap Nederland. The muselaer virginals played by Mr. Klaassen were meticulously crafted by Louis van Emmerik, inspired by the Ruckers virginals of 1611, which are housed in "Het Vleeshuis," a museum renowned for its rich collection of musical instruments located in Antwerp, Belgium.

Modern Virginals

  • Composition: Almande De Symmerman, very likely Almande The Carpenter (anonymous)
  • Source: The Susanne van Soldt Manuscript (1599)

Malle Symen "Silly Simon"

  • Composition: Jan Pzn. Sweelinck
  • Source: The Leningrad Manuscript (1646), also known as Leningrad-Manuscript, housed in Leningrad, Biblioteka Akademii Nauk (Academy of the Sciencea) (circa 1650). This manuscript comprises ninety-five folios, with only folios 1–35 containing music, including dances, mostly anonymous, but featuring three compositions by Sweelinck.
  • Edition: Monumenta Musica Neerlandica, iii (1961) (part edn=)

Listen to three audio files below of period music for the virginals selected and performed exclusively for the Essential Vermeer website by Joop Klaassen, contributor to the Stichting Clavecimbel Genootschap Nederland. Mr Klaassen's muselaer virginals were built by Louis van Emmerik, after the Ruckers virginals of 1611 in Het Vleeshuis, a museum with a rich collection of musical instruments in Antwerp, Belgium.

Almande De Symmerman very likely Almande The Carpenter (anon.) from The Susanne van Soldt ManuscriptSoldt, Susanna van (Netherlands, sixteenth century) Composer for the virginals or organ: The Susanne van Soldt Manuscript contains a significant number of examples of arrangements of dance music based on dance tunes current on the Continent and popular in the Low Countries toward the end of the sixteenth century; copied in the Netherlands, c.1570; but the last 4 pieces copied by an English scribe for Suzanne van Soldt, 1599; London, British Library: Edition: Monumenta Musica Neerlandica iii (1961). (1599)

Malle Symen "Silly Simon"Melody from England with a Dutch text by A. Valerius in Nederlandtsche Gedenck-Clanck, 1626: "Stem: 't Engels Malsims ..." (melody like the English 'Malsims') = Dutch shortened translation of 'Silly Simon', an old English nursery rhyme: 1. verse: "Simple Simon met a pieman, going to the fair. Says Simple Simon to the pieman, let me taste your ware." The English text fits without problems to the melody. The Dutch text by Valerius is a 'conversation between A and B about the lies and deceits of the Pope and his priests'.


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