ENGLISH VIRGINAL DESIGN
CONCEPTS AND SEVENTEENTH CENTURY PITCH STANDARDS
Hubbard, writing in “Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making”
discusses English virginal scales, stating that, “Most of the
virginals had scales between 11 and 12 inches although some are as short
as 10½ inches, and one (strangely the earliest) is 13 inches”.
Hubbard’s information is essentially correct, though his
pioneering work has masked the scaling approach that the original makers
appear to have used when designing their instruments.
The English virginals of which Hubbard wrote survive in small
numbers. I am aware of only
twenty two extant instruments. The
instruments are stylistically very close to one another.
The cases are rectangular, and are usually of oak with coffered
lids, or show evidence to suggest that they were originally built that
way. The exteriors are
natural wood, finished with a dark varnish, decorated only by iron strap
hinges and lock hasps. The
interiors, on the other hand, show a blaze of colour.
The soundboards are decorated with flowers, birds, arabesque
border patterns and one or more gilt geometric roses; the lid and
keywell flaps have paintings, often a park scene or a representation of
Orpheus taming the beasts; and the faceboards, keywell and soundwell
feature finely cut mouldings and gilt embossed papers.
The basis of Hubbard’s approach to virginal scalings can be
seen when looking at pitch standards as applied to historical
instruments in the revival of interest that has taken place over the
past thirty or so years. Although
it has long been accepted that pitch standards were not at the same
level as today, and even that pitches both higher and lower than our
modern standard of a1 = 440Hz existed,
it is only recently that something approaching a good understanding of
them has been reached. It
has been usual for very many early music groups over the past several
decades to perform at a pitch of A415, chosen simply because it is an
equal-tempered semitone below modern pitch, and so that harpsichords
could be made to transpose between the two pitches with little
The recent, exhaustive, work on pitch standards carried out by a
number of authors, in particular Bruce Haynes, who was awarded his
Doctorate by the University of Montreal for his thesis Pitch
Standards in the Baroque and Classical Periods, has brought much new
information to general attention.
Haynes has found strong evidence for over two dozen different
pitch standards in Europe from about 1500 to 1850, including five
different standards in England. This,
and research carried out before, has implications for the English
virginals. This paper has
two purposes. Firstly, I
shall consider how the virginal makers themselves designed their
instruments, and in particular chose their string lengths.
From there I shall attempt to place the virginals into a wider
perspective and try and determine pitch standard values for those
instruments in the light of other surviving evidence.
The widespread modern view that old instruments should be played
at a pitch level around a semitone below modern pitch can be seen when
examining the surviving instruments.
Generally, restored instruments have brass treble stringing if
they have a c2
string lengths of 12 inches or under, and iron treble stringing if
longer than 12 inches. The
only exceptions to this are the 1642 Thomas White in the Victoria and
Albert Museum, restored by Derek Adlam,
and the 1684 Thomas Bolton virginal in Warrington Museum, restored,
(although no longer still playable), in 1953 by Leslie Ward, working for
Arnold Dolmetsch Ltd. Both
these instruments are strung in ferrous material and have c2
scalings a little under 12 inches.
I first became particularly interested in English virginal
scalings and pitch standards when I examined the 1675 Stephen Keene
virginal, in private ownership in Cheshire.
I was struck by this instrument - it was certainly a brother to
the 1668 Keene in the Russell Collection, here in Edinburgh,
and was also very clearly related to the 1671 Philip Jones virginal at
Tabley House in Cheshire. In
fact, the Cheshire Keene and the Jones virginals are much closer to each
other in design layout than the two Keene instruments are.
The Jones virginal also shows a derivation from the Russell
Collection Keene, clearly suggesting that the two makers had some type
of common workshop tradition.
The 1675 Keene has a c2 scaling of 308mm, a little
over 12 inches, and the cs are
comparatively longer than the fs,
suggesting the average scaling is a little shorter.
The Russell Collection Keene has a scale of 287mm (11¼ inches),
suggesting brass treble stringing for a pitch around A415, and the Jones
has a scale of 328mm (just under 13 inches), which implies iron treble
stringing. Considering the
three instruments together, it is difficult to form a firm opinion as to
whether the Cheshire Keene should be strung with brass or iron in the
treble. It is from this
position that my detailed research on virginal scalings, stringing
material and pitch standards began.
Of the twenty two surviving English virginals that I know of,
seven were built by the White family, Thomas and his son James; five
were made by what I refer to as the Townsend workshop tradition -
instruments by Townsend, his apprentices Player and Keene, and the
Philip Jones; three are by Exeter-based makers; two are by Adam
Leuersidge; there are two Anonymous instruments, possibly Scottish and
possibly by the same maker, both dating, I believe, from before 1625;
and there are three instruments by makers without known connections to
any of the groups listed above or to each other.
I have detailed string lengths for all of these instruments,
although the measurements of the Anonymous “AH” virginal, belonging
to the National Museums of Scotland and currently housed at the Russell
have no practical use as the two bridges are replacements (although very
closely following the original positions), and the soundboard register
for the jacks is probably also unoriginal.
The 1664 John Player scalings should also be treated with caution
as the right-hand bridge and soundboard register date from modern times,
though the measurements must be close to original.
The only other instrument requiring some consideration is the
1679 Charles Rewallin now at Exeter, where the treble of the left-hand
bridge has lifted. With
those cautions in mind, I believe I still have usable data from 21 of
the 22 instruments.
The first aspect to consider, is what evidence there is of
original stringing materials from the instruments themselves.
There are only two instruments which retain any evidence of
historical stringing methods. The
Philip Jones virginal has remains of strings around the original tuning
pins, now kept separately from the instrument following its restoration
in the 1970s. These string
remains fall into two groups; most are clearly 19th-century cosmetic
additions and are all of ferrous material.
However, nine string remains are neat and have every appearance
of originality or very early use. These
strings have been independently measured by myself, during one of my
visits, and Andrew Garrett, when he and Richard Clayson restored the
instrument. Our measurements
agree with each other, and we both accept the strings as either original
or very early. Two of the
nine strings are of a copper alloy, the remainder are ferrous, the
lowest surviving ferrous string being at c.
The second instrument that contains evidence of historical
stringing is the 1641 Gabriell Townsend virginal at the Musee
Instrumental in Brussels. No
original strings remain, but the wrestplank has gauge numbers written in
an eighteenth-century hand that matches the writing found on some
replacement jacks which originated in an English eighteenth-century
double-manual harpsichord. The
gauges indicate tensions which are considerably higher than found in
eighteenth-century harpsichords and spinets, and may be indicative of the original stringing.
A complication exists in regards to the string materials.
Beside gauge 13, at the bottom of the compass, is the word brass,
and next to gauge 10 (at note B, an octave below middle c) is the word
Coper. This is almost
certainly a mistake. It
could be that the words were transposed, meaning that the lowest octave
should be in red brass and the remainder in yellow brass, or it could
mean that iron was intended for the treble and copper (probably meaning
yellow brass) for the lowest octave between the two written indications.
In any case, there is something amiss, in addition to the fact
that the stringing list dates from the eighteenth century.
Significantly, the c2 scale of this instrument is
almost identical to that of the Philip Jones virginal.
This evidence from the surviving instruments alone is not of
great help when trying to reach firm conclusions about the treble
stringing material of the surviving English virginals.
Further, given the evidence of ferrous strings on the Philip
Jones virginal, and of possible brass treble strings on the Townsend, it
appears that the general supposition regarding string lengths
correlating to treble stringing materials is suspect.
Given their workshop-tradition relationship mentioned above, a
semi-logarithmic graph was drawn, showing the two Keene virginals and
the Jones. When graphed, the
three lines are essentially parallel to one another, in both the bass
and treble. This is also to
be found in the instruments of the Ruckers family, who have been shown
to have built instruments at different pitch standards.
This suggests that the English virginals may also have been built
with the intention of using the same treble stringing material and
different scales for various pitch standards.
It is important therefore to consider the design concepts used by
the makers as an important first stage in an attempt to make further
conclusions about scalings, stringing materials and pitch standards.
Unfortunately, the surviving instruments represent the work of 14
or 15 different makers, of which only Thomas White has left more than
two examples. Further, it
seems that instruments were probably built on a custom-order basis, and
there is little to suggest the use of standard models.
One must also take into account that the English virginal makers
were perhaps not the finest musical instrument craftsmen to have ever
A major problem with English virginals is trying to decide how
the makers set out their design scalings.
Modern researchers commonly quote the c2 string length
(that is, the c above middle
c) as the scale, and there is much evidence to suggest that it was this
note that was used in many schools of plucked keyboard instrument
It has been shown in instruments from many different schools that
scalings, amongst other measurements, are laid out with reference to
common measure, and one would expect that English virginals would follow
the same principle. The
first consideration is the length of the English foot during the
The study of length measurement appears to be as confused as that
of pitch, and as yet no thorough research work has been carried out on
it. It is known, however,
that the length of measurement was set down by Statute in 1558, and was
referred to as the “Queen Elizabeth Yard”.
As yet I have been unable to trace any legal source for the
actual distance for this measurement.
The earliest evidence concerning the foot length in England I am
aware of appears in the Lexicon
Technicum, compiled by John Harris and printed in London in 1704.
In his entry on Measures, he gives a list of foreign foot-lengths
compared to that of England. Unfortunately,
his methodology is not fully explained, although it is clear the
measurements come from a number of different sources.
The lengths of the different towns have been quoted in two forms,
the first in proportion to the English foot divided into 1000 parts, and
the second comparing to the English foot divided into feet, inches, and
tenths of inches. The first
measurement is the more accurate. In
practice, the rulers used (assuming they were specially made for the
purpose) could be divided practically into no more than 500 parts, the
person taking the measurements having to decide whether it is closer to
a division line or the centre of the space in order to achieve greater
Having compared all of Harris’s figures with those from other
sources it appears that his table is not very accurate.
However, he quotes two measurements for the Parisian foot which
are very close to each other. I
have two separate sources giving information of the Parisian foot and
they agree with each other to within one hundredth of a millimetre.
This is a remarkable agreement.
The two measurements given by Harris, 1.066 and 1.068 feet
probably reflect the practical problems of taking the measurements as
outlined above. Using those
two lengths, and comparing them with the two measurements I have for the
parisian foot, suggests that the English foot is between 304.156mm and
304.736mm. The next
measurement I have for the English foot comes from Johann Heinrich
Zedler, quoted in his Universal-Lexicon,
published in Halle in 1737.
Zedler gives the length of the English foot as 304.5375mm, almost
halfway between the two figures given above.
Using 20 different measurements from the English virginal by
Robert Hatley dated 1664, I have found that his ruler used a foot length
Of the c2 string lengths of the twenty one examples
which can be reasonably judged, only about twelve - a little over half
of them - have scalings which fall into easily divisible units of the
inch. This suggests that, unlike the instruments of many other schools,
the English virginal makers used another method in determining the
treble design scale.
English virginals, like almost all other virginals, have the
jacks placed in pairs between the strings, which must be moved apart to
give enough room for the jack and quill.
Therefore all of the strings on the player’s side of their
respective jacks are slightly longer, and the strings behind their jacks
slightly shorter, than their theoretical lengths, were they to be evenly
spaced as occurs in a harpsichord. Nineteen
of the twenty two surviving examples have the top string, regardless of
what note it is, to the player’s side of the jack.
There is a good acoustical reason for this, since putting the
string further away from the spine increases the amount of soundboard
wood that is able to vibrate. Of
the three exceptions; one shows a number of signs of having been altered
during construction with an extra note added in the treble, and another
instrument has 56 notes rather than the (by that time) usual 55 notes.
Therefore, the top string
being on the player’s side of its jack appears to be a general
One consequence of
this is that instruments with compasses ending on c3, d3,
or e3 in the treble all have the c’s
a little longer than theoretical, and the virginals which ascend to f 3
have the c’s a little
shorter than theoretical. Making
comparisons between instruments must take this into account.
From compiling a complete list of string lengths for all of the
surviving virginals, it is clear that the string lengths at the treble
commonly fell into easily divisible units of common measure.
On all but one of the instruments which ascend to c3,
d3 or e3 the string length for the c3
string can be easily divided into common measure, and in about half of
the examples the string length works out at 6 inches.
Other examples range from 4 inches, occurring in the 1638 Thomas
which is an orphan from a mother and child combination, through 5¾
to 7 inches, as appears in the Anonymous “Countess of Mar” virginal
at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
In some instances the top note of instruments that ascend to d3
or e3 also work out in common measure, which is probably due
to fortune rather than by design. The
only exception is the 1679 Charles Rewallin virginal at the Royal Albert
Memorial Museum, Exeter, where the treble strings are comparatively
short in relation to c2, which appears to have been the
design string in this example, as happens in contemporary spinets.
In instruments with f 3 as the top note it is the top f
which can always be divided into units of the inch, with string lengths
ranging from 4½ inches,
through 4¾ inches,
to 5¼ inches.
It appears that the virginal makers took the relative lengthening
and shortening of the string lengths into consideration when designing
the instruments for a particular scale length, and had a general rule
is used for the design string length, unless the compass extends to f 3,
in which case that note is used.
One remarkable feature about English virginals is the lack of
standardization in regard to following Pythagorean scalings, that is,
doubling string length for each octave, in the treble part of the
compass. Although some of
the virginals have treble string lengths which are close to being
Pythagorean scaled; for example the 1642 and 1651 Thomas White
instruments, and the 1684 Thomas Bolton virginal, other instruments show
treble scales which foreshorten by up to 15%; as occurs in the 1661
James White, the Anonymous “Countess of Mar” virginal, and the 1664
Robert Hatley. Sometimes
examples by the same maker can show this effect.
The two White instruments just mentioned are nearly Pythagorean,
but others show a noticeable amount of foreshortening.
In the 1638 child virginal there is no choice, as the right-hand
bridge is composed of two straight segments, but the 1644 virginal, now
in Cardiff, tapers by over 11% between the top note and c2.
It is possible that some makers exploited the fact that thinner
wire is usually stronger than thicker wire because of the drawing
process, and used thinner than normal gauges in the extreme treble.
The most reliable information suggests that the scale length
increase available by using thinner wire is in the region of 2-6% per
However, on the instruments which foreshorten by up to 15% this
would imply the need of at least three changes of gauge between the top
of the compass and c2, and several instruments with this
large foreshortening have scales increasing again towards c1,
an octave lower, which suggests the strings would need to get thinner
again. I know of no
evidence to suggest any stringing practices of that nature.
This can be illustrated by compiling graphs showing each of the
string lengths converted to its equivalent c2 scaling, in
which (due to the relative lengthening and shortening of alternate
strings) an average of close pairs has been taken.
When graphed, an instrument which is Pythagorean scaled
throughout its whole compass it would be shown as a horizontal straight
line. When graphed in this
manner, instruments such as the 1655 John Loosemore foreshorten by about
2½ semitones between the top of the compass and c2, then
increases to within a semitone of the treble scale just below middle c,
and the 1661 James White foreshortens by about two semitones in the top
octave, then increases to nearly reach the equivalent of the treble
scales at the eb above middle c.
While I can offer no reason as to why makers should reduce the
scales in some instruments by so much around c2, it is
evident from the foreshortening, and the use of common measure for the
significant treble notes, that it was the c3 or f 3
that was used as the design concept note.
As Bruce Haynes and other researchers have found evidence for
different pitches in England, it is likely that the design scale is
meant to imply a particular standard.
To judge from the surviving instruments, it appears that a 6 inch
c3, may have been considered by the makers to be something of
a reference pitch, which I shall refer to a pitch V.
In determining the c3 string length of virginals at
different pitches, mathematical ratios were probably applied, as have
been shown to have been used by the Ruckers family.
The earliest surviving dated instrument is the 1638 Thomas White
child virginal with a c3 string length of 4 inches, which
uses a 2:3 ratio, implying a pitch a perfect fifth above V.
The mother of this instrument would have been tuned to V-5s (ie.
5 semitones below V). Another
very early instrument is the 1641 Gabriell Townsend with a c3
string length of 6¾ inches. This
again can be expressed as a simple ratio of 6 inches, being 9:8,
suggesting a pitch a tone below pitch V.
When instruments which ascended to f 3 began to be
built and the f 3 rather than the c3 used as the
design scale string, it was necessary to use a 3:4 ratio to determine
the equivalent string lengths. For
instruments at pitch V, the f 3 string should be 4½ inches
long, and virginals a tone below pitch V, 5 inches.
Three virginals survive with 4¾ inch f 3 string
lengths, which imply they are only a semitone below pitch V.
The single instrument with a 6¼ inch c3 scale has a
4:3 relationship, when converted to the nearest quarter inch, and is
probably at the same pitch. There
is also a virginal with a 5¼ inch f 3, which might be at a
pitch 3 semitones below V, and likewise there is an instrument with a 7
inch c3 scale, showing a 4:3 relationship to the 5¼ inch f
3 instrument, and implying the same pitch.
The ratio between the 6¼ and 7 inch instruments (and their f
compass equivalents) can also be expressed as 9:8, further suggesting
those instruments should be tuned a tone apart.
The single instrument which doesn’t fit the pattern is the 1656
James White, with a 5¾ inch c3, which shows evidence of
having been altered during construction, and the short scale was
probably an attempt by the maker to rectify the fact that the c
strings were comparatively
shorter than they should have been, due to the string spacing geometry.
Therefore, the 21 virginals from which reliable measurements were
taken can be grouped according to string lengths.
There are 10 instruments at pitch V, 4 at a semitone below V, 4 a
tone below V, 2 at three semitones below V, and the child virginal tuned
a fifth above V.
The bass scalings of the virginals add support to the idea that
the same stringing material was used on all of the instruments; those
instruments at a tone below V having longer bass strings than the
virginals at pitch V, for example. It
is not clear how the bass scalings were actually decided.
None of the significant low notes work out as units of common
measure with enough regularity to be considered deliberate, rather than
as the result of statistical chance.
This is probably a reflection of the working methods used by the
makers in positioning the various soundboard components.
In most of the surviving instruments there is evidence that the
right hand bridge was marked out first, using a graduated stick held
against the spine, and the left hand bridge was positioned after the
register slots were cut. The
overall case length of the virginals is related to the pitch, and
therefore there is little latitude for the bass scalings.
In terms of linear measurement, a difference of a semitone in
pitch should result in a difference of string length around 3½ inches.
Virginals from other schools appear to show a similar disregard
to the exact string length of the bass notes.
It remains to determine the treble stringing material, and to
give some idea of pitch standards.
has shown that iron treble scalings are about 20 - 25% longer than brass
scalings for instruments at the same pitch level.
He has also shown that different schools of instrument making
probably used strings similarly close to their breaking point.
This can be tested by examining all of the reliable evidence.
I have found six pieces of information which can give some idea
how closely different schools of instrument makers stressed their
strings. All of the
information must be treated with some caution.
There is a tuning fork that survives with a Swedish clavichord
built by Pehr Lindholm, and another that was used by the late
eighteenth-century Parisian harpsichord maker Pascal Taskin.
The scalings of the slightly earlier French harpsichord maker
Blanchet can also be compared. There
is a large amount of evidence of mid eighteenth-century pitch standards
in England, including pitchpipes and tuning forks.
The organ at the Jacobikirche in Hamburg had a set of gedackt
pipes tuned to Cammerton, which may reflect the pitch of the Hass and
Fleischer families. Finally,
the harpsichord owned by Christiaan Huygens, presumably the Couchet that
had belonged to his father, had its pitch measured in Hz.
Taking all of the evidence at face value, it suggests that the
extreme difference of pitch for a given string length amounts to about
three-fifths of a semitone.
This compares more than favourably with research on individual
makers, such as the Ruckers family, whose work in the treble of the
compass is accurate to no closer than one semitone.
Bruce Haynes claims that it is not possible to generalise pitch
standards to an accuracy finer than one-fifth of a semitone.
Unfortunately, all of the evidence refers to instruments which
have iron treble stringing material, with only the information from
Hamburg giving direct assistance in determining brass treble string
lengths, although the changeover point from brass to iron stringing in
many harpsichords is known, and therefore reliable evidence is still
On the assumption that English virginals were equally close to
their breaking points
some comparisons can be made with the above-mentioned instruments, as
can be seen on the graph on the slide.
If iron was used as the treble stringing material of English
virginals, the instruments at pitch V, with a c3 string
length of 6 inches, should have a pitch of between 478 and 489Hz, taking
all the information equally, or if comparing the six pieces of evidence
with the large amount of information compiled by Bruce Haynes, the pitch
would be between 472 and 485Hz. This
standard is between one and two semitones above modern pitch.
The longer string lengths would produce pitches a semitone, a
tone, or three semitones below that, approximately 450, 425, and 403Hz
respectively. Were English
virginals to use brass treble string, the four pitch standards would be
approximately 392, 370, 349, and 330Hz.
There is supporting evidence to suggest that iron strings were
used in the treble. A
comparison with the virginals of the Ruckers family show that both the
treble and bass string lengths are consistent with iron stringing, as
can be seen in the semi-logarithmic graph.
However, when a typical brass strung virginal is added to a
graph, it can be seen that the curve is somewhat different, the bass
strings being roughly the same length, but the treble strings are much
This can be seen in the early surviving English spinets. The
spinet began to supplant the virginal in popularity around 1675, the
earliest surviving examples were probably built around 1680.
Most of the makers of the early spinets were also makers of
virginals, and according to written sources, harpsichords.
In terms of numbers of surviving instruments three makers stand
out, namely Charles Haward, Stephen Keene and John Player.
It is a pity there are no surviving Haward virginals, but
fortunately, enough spinets survive by these makers to gain a firm idea
of any pitch changes they introduced from the earlier virginals.
All of Haward's surviving instruments appear to date from the
1680's. There is the
harpsichord at Hovingham Hall, and a number of spinets.
The harpsichord has undergone considerable alteration, including
the fitting of a new wrestplank, but the original key-pads survive, and
from them the original wrest-plank and nut position can be reconstructed
with some accuracy. This
instrument probably had an original c3 scale of 6 inches,
similar to many English virginals. The
spinets have the same treble scale, but with shorter bass strings, a
natural consequence of the spinet design and layout.
John Player's surviving virginal has a 6 inch c3
scale. All his spinets
appear to be designed with shorter scales, usually about 10 inches at c2.
This, when converted to c3, would imply either a very
high pitch instrument, or else brass treble stringing.
Stephen Keene has left instruments showing a major change of
design. An early
instrument of his, now in the Royal College of Music, London, shows a
stringing layout that is reminiscent of his earlier virginals, but
instruments built soon after the RCM spinet have much shorter treble,
but slightly longer bass string lengths suggesting he changed to using
brass stringing at a slightly lower pitch.
These scale lengths are similar to those found in the early
Player spinets, suggesting he also used brass stringing in his spinets.
Further evidence to support this conclusion can be found when
examining the earliest surviving English plucked keyboard instrument -
the Lodewyk Theewes claviorgan, dated 1579, now in the collection of the
Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
This instrument appears to have originally been built as a
harpsichord, but converted soon after completion to a claviorgan by the
addition of an organ underneath. Little
of the instrument remains, but it is possible to determine that the
instrument had a four octave compass, from C - c3, chromatic.
A single organ pipe survives which has been identified by John
Koster as being for the bass Eb.
By blowing across the top of the pipe,
he has concluded that the pitch was between 1½ and 2 semitones below
modern pitch. The c3
string length is a little uncertain, as the 8’ bridge has been reglued,
but was probably very close to 181mm.
The use of different pitch levels in one type of instrument
suggests that a similar occurrence could occur elsewhere and should be
examined. This leads to a
number of interesting conclusions about pitch standards in England
It should be obvious that surviving musical instruments form the
most useful type of evidence for the determination of early pitch
levels. Unfortunately, many
instruments have been altered, thus destroying any primary evidence, or
else making its interpretation difficult.
Perhaps the instrument which reveals the most information is the
organ. It has long been
acknowledged that early English organs were built at pitches very
different from those of today. For reasons that are no longer known,
organs were essentially transposing instruments when they were used to
accompany choirs. Early written records survive which show that the bass
pipe was frequently 5 or 10 foot long, and the lowest note on the
keyboard was bass C. Pipes
of these dimensions suggests that the actual note produced would be
somewhere between modern G and G#.
From an examination of surviving music it is clear that the organ
part was pitched a fifth below the vocal parts, suggesting that the
standard quire pitch in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was
between two and three semitones above modern pitch.
Two of the best known researchers examining pitch standards,
Bruce Haynes and Ephraim Segerman have used surviving contracts between
organ-makers and churches as their evidence to support this pitch
standard. That Bruce Haynes
should do so is interesting in view of remarks earlier in his thesis.
In a section specifically dealing with the relationship between
length and pitch standards,
Haynes quotes Adlung, writing in 1758, as warning against the
expectation that organ pipes were necessarily the specifically quoted
length, and then produces his own evidence, citing Nuremburg-made
instruments, suggesting there is no proof that instruments were built to
The evidence from contemporary documents is often not as clear as
those supporting the 10 foot pipe length would like to believe.
Perhaps the best known document supporting this pitch standard,
the so-called “Duddington Contract” is ambiguous in its wording,
actually stating that “the pryncipalle to conteyne the length of v
foote so following Wythe Bassys called Diapason to the same conteynyng
length of x foot or more...”
This use of the terms “five and ten foot” appears to parallel
the modern convention of defining organ registers in terms of 4, 8, or
16 foot length. The use of
this modern system can be dated back at least as far as the Talbot
Manuscript, compiled around 1697. The
authors claiming the exactness of the ten foot system do not equally
insist that the modern organ has pipes exactly eight feet long.
The most thorough examination of the surviving early English
organs has been carried out by Dominic Gwynn, who published his results
in the Journal of the British Institute of Organ Studies.
Much of his information came from the instruments themselves,
though often via altered pipe markings to show changes in pitch
standards, and a number of other measurements were taken by Ellis in the
nineteenth century using tuning forks.
Bruce Haynes has used Gwynn’s figures and added other
instruments whose pitch has been determined since the publication of the
there are a number of instruments which support the evidence that the
pipes in question are built to the exact measurements, and produce a
pitch two to three semitones above our modern standard, it is clear that
a much larger number are at a pitch a semitone below that, at
approximately A474. On the
basis of the large amount of surviving primary evidence, Dominic Gwynn
considers this was the common seventeenth-century quire pitch.
It is notable that this pitch - one to two semitones above modern
pitch - is that found in half of the surviving English virginals,
assuming iron wire in the treble. As
at least three makers of surviving virginals - James White, John
Loosemore, and Charles Rewallin - were also organ makers, this is
unlikely to be a coincidence.
Comparing all of the surviving English virginals with the
evidence from organs, it can
be seen that the virginals and organs have similar numbers of surviving
instruments through the four different pitch standards assuming iron
wire, as can be seen in the upper graph; but are all lower in pitch than
the organs were they to be strung in brass, seen in graph two.
This would appear to confirm the use of iron wire as the virginal
treble stringing material. The
similarities between the surviving numbers of organs and virginals may
also suggest a use for virginals when organs were unavailable.
Given the much higher incidence of organs pitched one to two
semitones above modern pitch than those a tone to three semitones
higher, there seems to be very good arguments that the lower pitch was
the common quire pitch standard. Bruce
Haynes does not attempt to give a name to this pitch level in his
thesis. The evidence of a
large number of organs cannot be ignored, especially as many were in
major cathedrals and chapels, and would obviously have been used to
accompany singing, so I believe there can be little doubt that the most
common sacred vocal pitch in seventeenth-century England, the common
quire pitch, was between one and two semitones above modern pitch.
The evidence would support this pitch in the sixteenth century as
well, although it is possible that two different quire pitch standards,
a semitone apart, existed at that time, the higher pitch proving too
high for the comfort of the singers and was gradually dropped from use.
The use of three pitch standards below this modified quire pitch
also has performance implications. It
has already been commented that the pitch standards fall into two groups
of instruments a tone apart. By
the end of the seventeenth century the lower group - those instruments
playing at V-1s and V-3s were in the majority for secular music.
Although it is unclear why these pitch standards existed prior to
about 1675, the use of French-style woodwind instruments, particularly
recorders and oboes, had a major influence on English instrument making
in the last quarter of the century.
The major wind-instrument makers during this time were the
recorder and flute maker Peter Bressan, who was born and taught in
France; and the trumpet maker William Bull.
The Talbot Manuscript, compiled between 1692 and 1700 mentions
Peter Bressan in relation to woodwind instruments, and William Bull with
brass instruments, and gives measurements of instruments by both makers.
There are a fairly large number of Bressan recorders still
surviving, and the general consensus is that these instruments now play
at a pitch of around A408. When
shrinkage is taken into account the original pitch is likely to have
been around A403.
This pitch also appears to be the about the level found by Eric
Halfpenny in his articles on the surviving Bull trumpets published in
the Galpin Society Journal in 1962 and 1963.
This pitch is the likely common standard for V-3s.
Unfortunately, there are few performing scores of the period
available to consider how various instruments coped with the V-1s / V-3s
standards. Peter Holman,
writing in Four and Twenty Fiddlers 
mentions the purchase in January 1637/8 of a “Cremonia vyolin to play
to the Organ”, which clearly implies that smaller instruments were
used to play at the organ’s pitch standard.
However, by the time of Purcell, it appears that the violins were
tuned to the same pitch as the recorders.
measures a violin and quotes a string length of 13 inches, identical
with that used today. Although
it is possible to tune violins with that string length to a pitch around
the lower pitch is likely. Further
evidence to support this can be found in the cellos of the period.
Although most contemporary sources, such as Talbot, quote the
tuning of the open strings as Bb, F, C, and G, most of the
surviving music requires the standard modern tuning of C, G, D, and A.
The two tunings can be explained conveniently as a result of the
pitch levels. The surviving
cellos of the period, for example that by William Baker dated 1672
are generally of small dimensions. The
players would have considered them as instruments playing in C
when they were at c. A403, and in Bb
when they played at the higher organ pitch of c. A450.
Bass Viols also appear to have been built at the two different
pitch standards, the larger instruments played at V-3s, and the smaller
instruments such as the so-called “Division Viols” by Barak Norman
It is likely that the different pitch levels in England prior to
1700 were the result of changes due to the development of new
instruments, combined with the reluctance to disregard earlier music.
Organ pitch generally remained at higher levels, partly due to
the reluctance of makers to build at lower pitches for cost reasons, and
also because the sacred music sung to the organ needed to be performed
at higher pitches to remain within the voice ranges of the singers.
As new instruments were developed, or other instruments began to
be used with organs, it
became essential to compromise, sometimes using transposition between
The use of the pitch level a semitone below quire pitch possibly
started as a result of string instruments being used with the organs.
Viol consorts were commonly supposed to have organ accompaniment.
The likely pitch of consorts was at V-3s.
In order to allow easy transposition, the organ is best tuned a
tone higher. Smaller violins
and cellos could also play with the organ at the same pitch, as was
probably common prior to the common use of overwound strings in the last
decades of the seventeenth century.
Trumpets were also able to play with organs at V-1s.
It was standard for trumpets to be issued with a crook to enable
them to play a tone lower. The
standard pitch was D at A403, which was the same as C at A450.
Music for trumpet survives in both keys.
The pitch standard two semitones below quite pitch is most
commonly associated with the organ builder Renatus Harris, and became
the dominant pitch standard in the early eighteenth century.
It probably originated as the level a tone below quire pitch and
was used for transposition. Its
use by Harris was an attempt to do away with transposing instrument
levels, although it was still necessary for the organist to transpose
when accompanying earlier choral music written for the higher quire
pitch standards. Larger
string instruments which were later tuned to the consort pitch standard
a semitone lower, could also be tuned to this standard without too great
a risk of string breakage.
In summing up, there were four main pitch levels used in the
second half of the seventeenth century ranging from a quire standard
between one and two semitones above modern pitch, to a low standard
which was the likely pitch level used by Purcell in his stage works, at
about A403. The surviving
keyboard instruments, both virginals and organs, show evidence that all
of these pitches were used as solo standards, and virginal makers used
easy divisible units of the standard foot measurements in designing
their instruments to play at these different pitch levels.
Frank Hubbard; Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making, (Cambridge, MA., 1965), p.
As early as 1921 E. H. Fellowes, writing in English
Madrigal Composers concluded that vocal pitch in early English
music was much higher than modern pitch.
Haynes gives a history of research on pitch standards as part of his
thesis. The main early
researchers were Alexander Ellis (1885) and later Arthur Mendel
(1948, 1955 and 1978). In
addition to Haynes himself, both Dominic Gwynn and Ephraim Segerman
have published on the subject of pitch standards with particular
reference to England.
This instrument is tuned to modern pitch.
Russell Collection No. V3-1668SK.8 .
It is difficult to conclude what this common tradition was, since
Jones was not an apprentice of Keene, but of John Haward, becoming a
freeman in 1667. It is
certainly possible that Jones worked as a Journeyman in Keene’s
workshop before setting up on his own.
National Museums of Scotland No. 1930.329, Russell Collection No.
Grant O’Brien; Ruckers - a harpsichord and virginal building tradition (Cambridge,
1990), pp. 56-60.
However, the 1642 and 1651 Thomas White virginals both appear to
have been made using the same laying-out sticks and so on, even
though the earlier instrument has a C - c3 chromatic
compass, and the 1651 virginal a GG/BB - d3 compass using
a short octave compass.
For example, many Italian instruments have a c2 string
length either one foot, or an integral number of inches long, using
the local unit of measurement. This
is also found in other schools, for example the eighteenth century
French (Taskin and Blanchet), Hamburg, and Stockholm.
Facsimile published as The Sources of Science, No. 28, by Johnson Reprint Corporation
(London and New York, 1966).
Herbert Heyde; Musikinstrumentenbau, 15. -
19. Jahrhundert. Kunsthandwerk
Quoted in Heyde, op. cit.
It appears that the common joiner’s rule of the period generally
used quarter inches as the finest marked subdivision.
See W.L.Goodman; The History of Woodworking Tools (London, 1964).
Private ownership, London.
1656 James White, Museum of London.
1675 Charles Rewallin, Taunton Castle Museum.
1641 Gabriell Townsend, Musee Instrumental, Brussels; and 1655 John
Loosemore, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
This instrument is now on display at the Gallery as part of the
permanent “Dynasty” exhibition. This instrument once belonged to
the Marie Stuart, Countess of Mar (d. 1644), whose husband acted as
guardian to the children of James VI and I, and was later the High
Treasurer of Scotland. There
is nothing in the construction, design or decoration of this
instrument to indicate any firm date and it could possibly have been
made any time between about 1579 (the arrival of Marie Stuart in
Scotland, from France) and 1644 (the date of her death).
1670 Adam Leuersidge, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; and 1684 Thomas
Bolton, Warrington Museum, Cheshire.
1661 James White, Bunratty Castle, Ireland; 1675 Stephen Keene,
private ownership, Cheshire; and 1666 Adam Leuersidge, Yale
1644 Thomas White, Welsh Folk Museum, Cardiff; and 1662 Thomas Body,
private ownership, London. The
actual f3 string length of the Body virginal is 124mm,
whereas a theoretical 5 inch string length should be 126.9mm.
Very few of the measurements on the Body work out with
reference to English common measure, which might suggest he used a
different unit of measurement, he might of built his instrument
using different techniques, or he may just have not been particular
concerned about accuracy. Perhaps
significantly, Body’s apprenticeship was with a joiner, rather
than a virginal maker.
1671 Philip Jones, Tabley House, Cheshire.
Martha Goodway and J. Scott Odell; "The Metallurgy of 17th- and
18th Century Music Wire", in The Historical Harpsichord, Volume Two, edited by Howard Schott,
Stuyvesant, NY, 1987). I
know of no evidence to suggest greater scale increases than 6% per
Grant O’Brien; Ruckers - a harpsichord and virginal building tradition, (Cambridge,
Grant O’Brien; “Some principles of eighteenth-century
harpsichord stringing and their application”, The
Organ Yearbook, XII (1981), pp. 160-76.
If an attempt is made to compare the information to that found for
all instruments, and compiled by Bruce haynes, the difference is
less than half a semitone.
see Grant O’Brien, Ruckers - a harpsichord and virginal building tradition, (Cambridge,
As there is a large foreshortening in the treble section of a number
of surviving English virginals it appears that the design scale
string must have been tuned fairly close to its breaking point for
the less stressed strings to sound at all well.
The changes that have taken place to the Hovingham Hall harpsichord
built by Haward follow the same pattern, the original six inch c3
design scaling being altered to a 10¼ inch c2 scaling,
also probably reflecting a change to brass stringing at a lower
Museum No. 125-1890.
Private Communication. He
added that the pitch measurements were made by ear using a tuning
fork as a reference. Therefore
there could be some inaccuracy (amounting to less than a half a
semitone) with his results.
Bruce Haynes; Pitch Standards in the Baroque and Classical Periods, (UMI
Dissertation Services, Ann Arbor, 1995), pp. 39 - 43.
See Stephen Bicknell; The History of the English Organ, (Cambridge, 1996), pp. 28 - 9.
Dominic Gwynn; "Organ Pitch in Seventeenth Century
England", Journal of the
British Institute of Organ Studies, 9, 1985, pp. 65-78.
It would be an interesting exercise to compare the voice ranges
found in music written at different places and see if there is some
correlation between the two different pitch standards and the ranges
found in the surviving music.
Haynes quotes a commonly used formula for determining the alteration
of a woodwind bore due to shrinkage.
Peter Holman; Four and Twenty Fiddlers, (Oxford, 1993), p. 214.
Christ Church Mus. Ms. 1187.
That pitch standard was commonly exceeded in the nineteenth century
when orchestral pitch was c. A455.
The violins were still using gut strings.
I would like to thank Brenda Neece for bringing this to my
See Peter Trevelyan; “A Quartet of String Instruments by William
Baker of Oxford (c. 1645 - 1685)”, Galpin Society Journal, XLIX, 1996, pp. 65 - 76
This is based on the string length of the surviving instruments, and
using the modern classical guitar as the standard to judge the
likely breaking level of the gut.
Before the last war guitars used gut strings.
With a standard string length of 650mm they commonly played
at a pitch of c. A435.
 This pitch standard appears to have been referred to, until the end of the seventeenth century, as “Consort” pitch.