In 2019, the King Baudouin Foundation was given a virginal made by Henry van Casteel as part of the Jacques and Jeaninne Versluys-Evrard Fund. This 18th century instrument is of exceptional quality and in more than one way is a precious testimony to the history of keyboard instruments.
The virginal is a keyboard instrument, smaller than the harpsichord, whose strings run in parallel or obliquely to the keyboard. Dating from the 18th century, Henry van Casteel’s virginal is rectangular and is one of the rare examples of this type to have been conserved.
Henry van Casteel is one of the last 18th century harpsichord makers and one of the pioneers in piano making in the Southern Netherlands. Born in Tournai in 1722, the first traces of his professional activity come from Lisbon where he worked rather successfully between 1757 and 1767. In 1769, he returned to live in Brussels and rapidly achieved a certain prosperity among musicians. The advertisements he placed in the Netherlands Gazette give us an idea of his production between 1770 and 1777. So, for instance, he offered a “feather harpsichord” with five octaves, worked using pedals, a “hammer harpsichord” and a “piano forte” in which “changes are made using the knees”.
This virginal, dated 1770, is one of the first instruments made by Henry van Casteel after moving to Brussels. He used species of wood that were brought back from Portugal to make the instrument, including boxwood from southern Europe for the keys. The instrument also has some differences compared with the virginals made in our region and might reflect the particularities of instruments made in the Iberian peninsula during the period, although we have no such virginal or spinet. Henry van Casteel’s virginal is thus a major source of information for the study of keyboard instruments.
Only two other instruments made by van Casteel are kept in public collections: a 1763 grand piano in Lisbon and a 1784 square piano exhibited in Vienna.
The virginal received as part of the Jacques and Jeaninne Versluys-Evrard Fund is exhibited at the Museum of Musical Instruments (MIM) in Brussels and will be the subject of further in-depth research, which will also enable scientific identification to be made of the woods used.