This collection of compositions for keyboard instruments is widely regarded as the most important surviving manuscript of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English music. Containing nearly three hundred works, it is certainly the largest. The virginal that gives the book its name is a small keyboard instrument that works on the same principle as the harpsichord – strings are plucked when a key is hit, rather than struck as they are in a piano.
The virginal may have been so called because it was the favourite instrument of well-brought-up young women, and therefore had maidenly connotations. It has also been associated with Elizabeth I, 'The Virgin Queen', in whose reign the instrument became popular. The Fitzwilliam manuscript used to be known as 'Queen Elizabeth’s Virginal Book', in the mistaken belief that it was owned by her. In fact the pieces in the book are not written for performance on virginals alone – several other keyboard instruments are provided for.
The transcriber of all this music is popularly believed to have been a Cornishman called Francis Tregian, who is said to have compiled the book whilst imprisoned in Fleet Prison, London, for being a recusant – a Roman Catholic who refused to attend Church of England services. He died in 1619, still a prisoner.
This romantic account of the manuscript’s origin, first formulated in the nineteenth century by Roman Catholic musicologists, has however recently been called into doubt. The Tregian family might in fact have had nothing to do with the production of the book, and it has been suggested that the manuscript was the product of a scriptorium – a scribes’ workshop – connected to the English court. Several hands seem to have worked on the transcriptions, but the same Swiss paper is used throughout. This is of a very high quality, and of the type used in English royal documents of the time.
Most of the composers represented in the volume are English. This folio, however, no. 327, shows the end of a fantasia by the Dutch organist Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, and a coranto, a kind of dance, by the devout Roman Catholic composer William Byrd.