1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Spinet

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SPINET, or Spinnet (Fr. espinette or épinette; Ger. Spinett; Ital. spinetta), names given in England to all small keyboard instruments irrespective of shape, having one string to a note, plucked by means of a quill or plectrum of leather. The earliest name recorded for this instrument is clavicymbalum, which occurs in the rules of the Minnesingers (1404), and also in the Wunderbuch (1440), a MS. preserved in the grand-ducal library at Weimar. This is enriched with pen and ink sketches, amongst which is a series of musical instruments comprising a clavicymbalum, not represented as the rectangular instrument figured by Virdung and Luscinius, but harp- or wing-shaped like the larger and more perfect instrument afterwards known as harpsichord in England (clavecin, clavicymbel).

In Italy the usual early model of spinet was pentagonal or heptagonal, and was generally enclosed in an outer case, from which it was taken for performance. Some of the oldest rectangular specimens merely contain a pentagonal spinet, the corners not being filled in. In the 16th century the rectangular spinets were modelled in Italy on the cassone or wedding coffers, and the keyboard, until the middle of that century, stood out from the case, Rosso of Milan being the first to recess it. Both forms were in use in England until the Restoration, when the transverse or wing form became popular in England, Haward, Stephen Keene and Thomas Hitchcock being the most celebrated English makers[1] at the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th century.

The mechanism of all spinets, virginals and harpsichords is the same in principle, the principal variation being in the number of strings to each note and the manner in which they are disposed over the soundboard. In the spinets they run parallel or at an obtuse angle to the keyboard. The jack rests on the back of the key-lever, and works through a rectangular hole cut through the soundboard as the key is depressed. The quill or plectrum is embedded in a pivoted tongue near the top of the jack in such a manner that when the tongue is at rest the quill protrudes at right angles just under the string. As the jack rises the quill catches the string and twangs it, causing the tongue, kept in place by a bristle spring, to fall back and thus avoid the string on the return of the jack. A little piece of cloth acting as a damper and attached to the jack rests on the string whenever the key returns to its normal position.

For the history of the spinet, see Pianoforte. (K. S.)


  1. See A. J. Hipkins, The History of the Pianoforte, pp. 71-73 (London, 1896).