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A Sovereign’s Spinet:
The Musical Instrument of Queen Elizabeth I

Annie Thwaite

 

The Queen Elizabeth Virginal/Spinet. Made in Venice, Italy, ca. 1594, by Giovanni Baffo. Museum no. 19-1887. Image c Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The Queen Elizabeth Virginal/Spinet. Made in Venice, Italy, ca. 1594, by Giovanni Baffo. Museum no. 19-1887. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Recently, my mother told me that she was thinking about selling my violin, which I haven’t played in quite a few years. If you ever went to my family home, you might be quite surprised to see the plethora of different sized violins that we keep – from tiny ones that I played at the age of 3, to my most recent full-sized violin, which was made over 150 years ago. Of course, there’s no point in my violin sitting in its case unplayed, yet parting with this instrument would mean letting go of this beautiful object I’d had for many years. This led me to wonder about two opposing, yet related things.

Firstly, how many different hands might my violin have passed through since it was made in the nineteenth century? And following on from this – why is it that we have a strange attraction and attachment to certain objects, regardless of whether they are being used for their intended function or not? My violin is still in perfectly good condition after travelling with me to concerts in Ireland and Japan, after surviving world wars and remaining intact for decades in unknown hands and unknown lands. Yet my violin (rather shamefully) now lives a half-life – unplayed, unused, and not fulfilling its true potential. It may be a beautiful object, yet this aesthetic attractiveness represents only a fraction of its true appeal: it can also deliver beautiful sound, and convey beautiful music to those who play it. Thus whilst musical instruments can survive as decorative objects, perhaps they only truly live when successive people continue to play them.

Side view of the spinet. Image c Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Side view of the spinet. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This fascinating object is a spinet – a small harpsichord with slanted strings, currently in storage at the V&A Museum, yet once belonging to Queen Elizabeth I. When placed in a box, without legs, it is commonly referred to as a virginal, hence the name given in the V&A Collections – ‘The Queen Elizabeth Virginal’. This spinet was made in 1594 according to the date discovered on the jack-rail of the instrument (the mechanism used to muffle the sound of the strings), and is made from cypress wood with a painted case, decorated with parchment rosettes, gilding, painting and inlay, with ebony and bone certosina keys.

At the time the best spinets came from Italy, particularly Venice. Indeed, the similarity between this instrument and contemporaneous examples has been noted, especially with reference to the Islamic motifs such as Moresque patterns seen on the border of the case. Spinets were regarded as more ladylike than lutes, as the player had less chance of developing rounded shoulders. During Elizabeth’s reign (1558-1603), some of England’s greatest composers flourished, including Thomas Tallis and William Byrd – to hear the music of William Byrd, played on a spinet such as this, click the link below:

The relationship between certain objects and historical figures has frequently turned out to be mere myth, but this spinet is an exception – it is decorated with both the royal coat of arms of the Tudors and the personal emblem of Anne Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth’s mother – a falcon with a sceptre. Moreover, since Elizabeth was noted for her ability to play keyboard instruments ‘excellently well’ it is likely that she played this spinet, one account even stating that she played ‘when she was solitary, to shun melancholy’.[1]

But what does Elizabeth’s spinet have to do with my violin? Having left the Royal Household soon after the death of Elizabeth, this instrument resurfaced in 1798 at Fisherwick Park, Staffordshire, and was then purchased by the V&A in 1887 – yet like my violin, it could have passed through any number of hands during the two missing centuries.[2] During the 1960s, a revival of early modern music was accompanied by an interest in early modern instruments; indeed, during this period the V&A catalogued its musical collections and put them on display.[3] Yet once this period of interest had faded, it seems many instruments – including Elizabeth’s spinet – were put into storage, much like my violin sitting in its case at home.

Detail of the Royal Coat of Arms on the spinet. Image c Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Detail of the Royal Coat of Arms on the spinet. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Am I suggesting that Queen Elizabeth’s spinet should still be brought out to be admired, and more than this – played? Not necessarily: the exceptional historical significance of this object is incontrovertible, and clearly the instrument is too fragile, valuable and precious to risk such damage. Yet it is interesting to consider how, in this state, the spinet can be seen as only half alive. It survives merely as a decorative object, re-appropriated as a ‘piece of furniture’, yet seen physically by almost no one. It is not even primarily labelled as a musical instrument, as illustrated by its categorisation not as a spinet, but as a virginal. Perhaps this merely demonstrates a fantastic multi-functional object – yet it seems to me more like true form and function have been divorced. My violin will probably live a few more decades, hopefully being passed on and played by several more hands. As for the life of Elizabeth’s virginal – we can only wait and see.

keys

Detail of the keyboard. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

 

 

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[1]http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O70511/the-queen-elizabeth-virginal-spinet-baffo-giovanni/

[2]http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O70511/the-queen-elizabeth-virginal-spinet-baffo-giovanni/

[3] Wilk, Christopher, ed., Western Furniture 1350 to the Present Day, (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1996), p. 230.

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Annie Thwaite – 
Annie is in her second year on the Renaissance stream of the V&A/RCA HoD course, which she joined after doing her BA in History at Warwick University. Whilst exploring many areas of Renaissance material culture, she is particularly interested in the history of Reformation and Restoration England. Annie’s dissertation focuses on objects used to cure bewitchment, and the dichotomy between magic and science in in early modern England. She also acts as co-Editor in chief of Unmaking Things.

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© Annie Thwaite, 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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