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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 Johannes Vermeer would include two lutes, a harpsichord, three bass viols, five citterns, a baroque guitar, a trumpet, perhaps 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. 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, such as the one seen on the lid of the virginals in Vermeer's Music Lesson (fig. 1), were a frequent embellishment.

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. It has also been advanced that it acquires its name from Latin virga (“rod”), referring to the jacks, or wooden shafts that rest on the ends of the keys and hold the plucking mechanism. Virginals are described either as spinet virginals (the more common type) or muselar virginals.1 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 16th- and 17th-century England, where the name was also used generically to mean any harpsichord."1

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 Hanneke van Proosdij
Performed by: Couperin, 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 the Vermeer in Diego Duarte's collection, described as "a small painting with a lady playing the clavecin, with accessories." Of the 35 composition 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 paintings are of the muselar type. Because the keyboard is fairly high up, it was not unusual to play standing; the seated lady is not ergonomically sound, her elbows lower than her hands can't be very comfortable.

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 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. A study of a large sample of paintings from the Low Countries by Ton Koopman and Lucas van Dijk revealed that 90% of the keyboard players are women.

Launch video

From the Clavichord to the Modern Piano

There are essentailly 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."3 The spinet virginals, instead, 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, leather, Height: 24 cm.
Width (parallel to keyboard): 170.8 cm.
Depth (perpendicular to keyboard): 48.8 cm.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, muselar virginals were appreciated for their unique sound quality. 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 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."

The Ruckers family was a true dynasty of virginals and harpsichord makers from the Southern Netherlands based in Antwerp 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 design 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 Antwerp reached its peak of production and began producing more uniform instruments. Painted arabesques and lid paintings were replaced in most instances by block-printed papers, including the dolphin motif (fig. 8) that is represented on so many paintings of the period (seen on a muselar virginal by Joannes Ruckers from 1622). 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. 2

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.

Launch video

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 6 foot 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 45 keys on bone and ebonized bone.

The Ruckers Family (Vleeshuis Museum of Antwerp)*

The Ruckers family dominated the Antwerp production of keyboard instruments from the end of the sixteenth until the middle of the seventeenth century. Their harpsichords found their way into all European countries and some even travelled as far as South America.

The instruments built by Hans, Joannes and Andreas Ruckers (first half of the seventeenth century) are exhibited on a platform on the ground floor. They are flanked by some harpsichords from Antwerp builders, active during the second half of the eighteenth century (Jacobus van den Elsche and Joannes Petrus Bull).

In the centre of the hall on the ground floor, a number of Antwerp harpsichord from the seventeenth century are displayed on a platform. Most instruments are built by members of the Ruckers-Couchet family. This family of harpsichord builders dominated the production in Antwerp at the end of the sixteenth century and during the first half of the seventeenth century.

The sound boxes of the Ruckers harpsichords are often painted with imitation marble designs. Inside flowers and insects are drawn on the soundboard. Around the upright boards above the soundboard, above and along the keys and on the inside of the lid decorative paper is glued with arabesques and dolphin motives in black against a white background. The lid often has moralising inscriptions. The inside of the lid is often decorated with a charming scene.

Hans Ruckers' contemporaries had nothing but the highest praise for his instruments. With time that appreciation only increased. And the harpsichords built by those who continued the family tradition were widely acclaimed. They were exported to the whole of Europe andeven to Latin America.

In France Ruckers and Couchet instruments became popular from the seventeenth century onwards. In the eighteenth century a number of imitations are sold to amateurs for exorbitant amounts of money! After 1700, quite a few other Ruckers harpsichords in France and England were adapted to suit the reigning musical fashions. This does not in any way diminish the prestige of their Antwerp builder, though.

The founder of the French harpsichord school, Jacques Champion de Chambonnière, owned a Couchet. Jean-Henry Danglebert (1628–1691), «ordinaire de la musique de la chambre du Roy pour le clavessin», owned a Ruckers.

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

The rise of the Antwerp harpsichord construction had everything to do with Antwerp's economic prosperity in the sixteenth century. Initially the city only traded in harpsichord imported from Germany.

The first builders of keyboard instruments that settled in Antwerp came from Germany. We know of a Hans Süss or 'van Cuelen' (from Cologne), who settled in Antwerp in 1519. Joost Kareest, active in Antwerp around 1550, was also born in Cologne.

Not only did Antwerp count many potential rich buyers among its citizens it also offered brilliant export possibilities. In 1557 ten harpsichord builders, among whom Joost Kareest and his brother, requested membership of the Guild of Saint Luke, which not only represented painters and sculptors but also other artistic professions.

the website of the Vleeshuis Museum of Antwerp http://museum.antwerpen.be

Special Feature:

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.

moder virginals

Almande De Symmerman very likely Almande The Carpenter (anon.) from The Susanne van Soldt Manuscript * (1599)

Malle Symen "Silly Simon" **
(Jan Pzn. Sweelinck) from The Leningrad Manuscript (1646)****** Leningrad-Manuscript: Leningrad, Biblioteka Akademii Nauk [Academy of the Sciences], Q N 204 (c1650). 95 ff., of which only 1–35 contain music; dances, etc., mostly anon., but including 3 by Sweelinck. Edition: Monumenta Musica Neerlandica, iii (1961) [part edn]

[Information from an edition of Jacob van Eyck's "Fluyten Lust-hof" (1648, dedicated to Constantijn Huygens), where 'Malle Symen' and 'Daphne' appear with several variations.]

Courante Daphne The popular melody "Daphne" **** as a French 'Courante' dance (anon.) also from The Leningrad Manuscript (1646)

* Soldt, 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).

** 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'.

**** The English song 'When Daphne did from Phoebus fly' (Dutch: 'Doen Daphne d' over schoone Maeghd') was well known in numerous variations. In Adriaen Valerius, Nederlandtsche Gedenck-Clanck (1626) it appears also with a slightly changed melody but a total different text telling from the cruelties of the Eighty Years War in Holland.


  1. While some apply the term "virginals," to all plucked stringed keyboard instruments whose strings run more or less from left to right across the keys, others reserve the term "spinet" for instruments in which the strings run obliquely away from the player.
  2. "The Virginal," Encyclopædia Britannica. May 28, 2018.
  3. Grant O Brien. Ruckers: A Harpsichord and Virginal Building Tradition. Cambridge University Press, 1990. p. 130.

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