spinet, musical instrument of the harpsichord family. Although the terms virginal and spinet, interchangeable until the end of the 17th cent., were sometimes used indiscriminately to designate any harpsichord, they usually referred to small instruments having one keyboard, one string to each note, and the keys more or less perpendicular to the strings, similar to the clavichord. The first spinet, made in the 15th cent., may have been a clavichord to which a quill mechanism was added. In England in the 18th cent. the virginal was an instrument with a rectangular case, while the spinet had a triangular or wing-shaped case. Until the middle of the 18th cent. neither had legs attached. The Elizabethan virginalists, among them William Byrd, Thomas Morley, and Orlando Gibbons, were the composers of an important body of music, of which the outstanding collection is the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (early 17th cent., publ. 1894–99).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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