Like A Virginal

Johannes Vermeer, A Lady Standing At The Virginal (c. 1672)

Johannes Vermeer, A Lady Standing At The Virginal (c. 1672)

A piano is a large piece of furniture, found in many American homes, that is used to display doilies and knickknacks.  It is technically a musical instrument, but in most homes the piano has not been tuned since the mid-1950s, so it tends to have the tonal quality of four hubcaps falling off a car simultaneously.  Another reason that living room pianos are rarely used is that hardly anyone knows how to play anything besides “Chopsticks” and the first few bars of “The Blue Danube Waltz”.  After plunking through that repertoire (and repeated encores of it), the pianist is not rewarded with applause, but with the sound of doors slamming throughout the house.  There are hundreds of thousands of pianos in existence — perhaps millions, even — but there are only 731 good piano players in the United States.  None of those can be found in a Methodist church.

The first piano was made around 1700 in Italy.  The name piano is a shortened form of its original name, pianoforte.   A rough translation of that Italian term would be “soft and loud”.  As we know, the instrument can generate soft and loud sounds, depending on how firmly the keys are struck.  Bartolomeo Cristofori’s invention was a breakthrough:  he figured out how to have little leather-covered hammers strike the strings.  Prior keyboard instruments, such as the harpsichord, plucked the strings.  That made a pleasing sound, but the volume remained the same, whether played with fingertips or elbows.

As mentioned, the harpsichord was an antecedent of the piano.  It was very popular with Baroque composers, but it was only one of several keyboard instruments of that era.  What we might call the “home model” of it was known as the virginal, a more compact and simple version of the harpsichord.  The strings ran roughly parallel to the keyboard and usually had 45 notes (as opposed to 88 on a modern piano).  When they first appeared in the 1400s, virginals were made without legs so that they could be placed on a tabletop to be played.

There are various theories about how the instrument got its name, including the doubtful claim that it’s because the virginal was mostly played by women.  Another possibility has to do with the tonal quality it produced.  In a document called Tractatus de musica that dates back to 1460, a Czech writer offers this explanation:  “It is called a virginal because, like a virgin, it sounds with a gentle and undisturbed voice.”  Obviously the writer of that statement had never been in a shopping mall with fourteen-year-olds shrieking at each other, “Omigod, Kimberly, shut UP!!!”

Naming an instrument for the sensory associations it evokes is a nice idea, though.  Maybe that’s why the trombone was originally called the sackbut.

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