Vince Ho


Charles Burney (1726-1814)

Charles Burney wrote in 1771 (The Present State of Music in France and Italy), "Throughout Italy they have generally little octave spinets to accompany singing, in private houses, sometimes in a triangular form, but more in the shape of our old virginals; of which they keys are so noisy, and the tone so feeble, that more wood is heard than wire."

This page is dedicated to this small and delicate ottavino spinet harpsichord (also known as ottavina or spinettina), usually built from the late 16th century to the 18th century. We are only concern about those that were built as an independant entity, strung in 4', as opposed to the child ottavino of a muselar that can be coupled with the mother, or a quint pitch instrument (mezzo-ottavino).

An Ottavino serves several uses:

1. toy
2. small decorative furniture, or as part of a jewelery box or sewing cabinet
3. child's instrument
4. domestic instrument for singing accompaniment
5. travel instrument
6. second keyboard of a large instrument, but without the coupling like a muselar does.
7. Instrument for playing the lute reportoire

It was, and still is, unprofitable to make ottavinos, because while the parts are much smaller and as difficult if not more difficult to make, the instrument's usage is limited, and due to its size, maker has to reduce its price, such as by half, to justify and convince customers to purchase an ottavino instead of a harpsichord, full size virginal, or spinet. Finally its use is furthur limited if it cannot be served as a child and coupled with a mother virginal, where the jacks of the mother would automatically hook up with the child.

Charles Burney's observation might be partially true, but keep in mind that it is extremely difficult to maintain these tiny instruments in shape and in tune, and in most cases people did not bother to keep them in shape. As you will find out in the recordings of this webpage, the ottavini is not feeble at all. In fact it is louder than many harpsichords!


Caravaggio, by Ottavio Leoni Cardinal Francesco Del Monte, by Ottavio 

Caravaggio (1573-1610) to the left, and Cardinal Francesco Del Monte (1549-1627) to the right.

Caravaggio: The Lute Player (1596-97)

Caravaggio's "The Lute Player (1596-97). The Hermitage in St. Petersburg. The painting was commissioned by Cardinal Francesco Del Monte. The Spinettina in the picture was possibly the Cardinal's own personal instrument.



Michael Praetorius (1571-1621)

Michael Praetorius' Theatrum Instrumentorum (1620), as an appendix to the Volume II of Syntagnum Musicum. Plate XIV represents plucked strings keyboard instruments of his day, including an "OctavInstrumentlin".

Plate XIV of Theatrum Instrumentorum


Marin Mersenne (1588-1648)

Marin Mersenne in his Harmonie Universelle (1627) has detailed descriptions of the ottavino.

ottavino in Harmonie Universelle, Book III, P.108.


Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643)

Frescobaldi wrote three pieces of music specifically calling for the use of the ottavino in "IN PARTITVRA IL PRIMO LIBRO DELLE CANZONI A VNA, DVE, TRE, E OVATTRO VOCI. Per Sonare con ogni sorte di Stromenti. Con dui Toccate in fine, vna per sonare con Spinettina sola, ouero Liuto, l'altra Spinettina è Violino, ouero Liuto, è Violino. DEL SIG. GIROLAMO FRESCOBALDI. ORGANISTA IN S. PIETRO DI ROMA. DATE IN LVCE DA BARTOLOMEO GRASSI Organista in S. Maria in Acquirio di Roma. CON PRIVILEGIO IN ROMA. Appresso Paolo Massoti. M.DC.XXVIII. CON LICENZA DE SVPERIORI." The three pieces are Toccata per Spinettina, è Violino. Toccata per Spinettina sola, and Canzona per Spinettina sola. detta la Vittoria. All three pieces fit in the range of D-d".


SPES Scan courtesy of Arto Wikla

Museum Collection

Photo: Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna SAM Inv. No. 121 (Photo: KMV)

Spinettino Italy Second half of the 16th century Various woods. You can find its soundfile at the end of this page.

Photo: Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

Anthonius Meidting Augsburg, 1587, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna SAM Inv. No. 119 (Photo: KMV)

Ferdinand I

Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I (1503-1564)

Anthonius Meidting Augsburg, 1587 . Different deciduous woods, partially stained, bone F-a2 H 7.4 cm, L 45.5 cm and 45.5 cm, D 45.1 cm. Emperor Ferdinand Is motto, SIC TRANSIT GLORIA MUNDI, painted on the spinet may refer to the transiency of sounds. On the other hand, the unusual combination of game board and musical instruments shows how important the concept of playing was in the Renaissance. They represent two sides of the same coin: to play a game (checkers, chess and tric-trac) or to play musical instruments, as represented here by a spinet (small plucked instrument) and a regal (a portable reed organ). Spinet and regal in the form of game boards

Photo: Marco Bresciani

Milan Museum of Musical Instruments, ottavino, Venetian, 1643 (Photo: Marco Bresciani)

Photo: Andrea Cavigliotti

Spinettino Abel Adam, Torino 1698 (Photo Scan: Andrea Cavigliotti)

Abel Adam (1657-1714), Torino 1698. 65cmx35cmx12cm In the collection of the Conservatorio di Musica di Torino that has an inscription of "ABEL ADAM FECIT.TAURINI A.D 1698". The ottavino measures 65cmx35cmx12cm, and of a height of 10cm. the compass is C/E-c"' with ebony natural and bone sharps keyboard. The case is constrcued in cypress with a wdith of 3mm. String length of c" is 17cm.

Photo: Metropolitan Museum of 

Rectangular Octagonal Virginal, ca. 1600 Augsburg, 89.4.1191, Metropolitan Museum of Art (Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

An ebony, casket like virginal in the style of Samuel Biedermann the Elder, probably made in Augsburg about 1600, is decorated with engravings by Hans Sebald Beham (1500-1550) and the elder Crispijn van de Passe (1565-1637). A delicate parchment rosette adorns the sound hole. Two shallow drawers, perhaps for sewing equipment, fit into the top of the lid. Sounding several octaves above normal pitch, this virginal was not intended for serious music-making.Wood and various materials; L. parallel to keyboard 17.4 in. (44.1 cm), W. perpendicular to keyboard 8.6 in. (21.8 cm), D. 3.6 in. (9.1 cm).

Biedermann was especially famous for building automatic ottavino.

Photo: Sheldan Collins

Claviorganum, Laurentium Hauslaib, 1598, 89.4.1191, Metropolitan Museum of Art (Photo: Sheldan Collins, Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Sheldan Collins Claviorganum, 1598 Made by Laurentium Hauslaib Nuremberg, Germany Wood and various materials; L. 26 in. (66 cm) The Crosby Brown Collection of Musical Instruments, 1889.

This tiny instrument incorporates an organ and a virginal built into an ebony tabletop chest of drawers. The lower keyboard manual is for the organ, and levers at the left of the keyboard serve as stops. A pair of bellows is concealed beneath the top of the chest; two ranks of flue pipes and a regal (reed) stop are arranged behind the drawers in the back. The upper keyboard belongs to a removable octave virginal. The instrument is tuned to approximately A=445. Above the keyboards is a small door with a lock and two carved columns flanking a brass relief panel depicting the Deposition from the Cross. The instrument was constructed by Laurentium Hauslaib during the time that he served at the court of Frederick IV, elector of the Palatinate, and was probably intended for domestic use.

Annibale Rossi, Milan, 1577 (Photo: Keys to the Millennium)

Annibale Rossi (1542-1577)came from a family of instrument makers in Milan. Seven of his virginals have survived.

Photo: Glinka State Central Museum of 
Musical Culture

16th century Spinet, attributed to Laurentius Hauslaib of Nuremburg, Gosudarstvennyj Centralnyj Muzej Muzykal.noj Kultury imeni M.I. Glinki in Moscow

According to Romà Escalas Llimona (Museu de la Música de Barcelona), this "Italian Spinet" is a sister instrument to the Metropolitan Museum's Claviorganum in "Claviorgans attributed to Laurentius Hauslaib in New York, Moscow and Barcelona ( Music in Art, International Journal for Music Iconography, Vol. XXVII/1-2 (2002))

"Given the shape, materials, and mechanisms of the claviorgans kept in the collections of the Museu de la Música in Barcelona (MDMB 821), the Crosby Brown Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (89.4.1191), and the Gosudarstvennyj Centralnyj Muzej Muzykal.noj Kultury imeni M.I. Glinki in Moscow, it is safe to conclude that all three instruments were built using the same criteria and format during a relatively short period of time in the early part of the 17th century and came from the workshop of Lurentius Hauslainb in Nuremberg. Their similarities in construction methods as well as the design of the cabinets are surprising, and they appear to be more an outcome of an established tradition than a product of an individual design of their maker. The measurements of the sounding parts of the instruments (provided in an appendix) makes it possible to establish their original tuning and later modifications."

Photo: National 
Museum of Music

NMM 3449. Miniature virginal by Francesco Vanini, Bologna, 1672. Single manual, c/e-f2 (2+ octaves); 1 x 2'. Ex coll.: E. M. W. Paul. Witten-Rawlins Collection, 1984. (Photo: National Museum of Music)

Photo: Janos StekovicsPhoto: Janos Stekovics

Musikinstrumenten-Museum der Universität Leipzig. Inv Nr-36. Virginal in a sewing box southern Germany, possibly Augsburg.

This little keyboard instrument looks like a jewelry box. It is itself a valuable jewel. Its small keyboard, with keys made of ebony and ivory, could only have accomodated a limited, very simple repertory. On closing the lid, the instrument is transformed into a sewing box with a large pin cushion and three small drawers meant to hold sewing paraphernalia. The box is decorated with inlays in ebony, ivory and rosewood. It also has a painted soundboard and an elaborately carved sound hole (rosette) covered in goldleaf. A copperplate engraving by Vinckboorn decorates the lid. On the engraving, titled "Not without pay" ["Niet sonder loon"], one sees a carefree bordello scene, two lovers with a lute and other symbols of sensuality, lust, and meretricious love. Luxurious boxes of this type often came from the shops of craftsmen in 17th-century Augsburg. These boxes would often have been presented to the mistresses of well-to-do townsmen.

Photo: Russell CollectionPhoto: Russell Collection

Petrus Michael Orlandus 1710

ITALIAN OCTAVE SPINET PETRUS MICHAEL ORLANDUS, PALERMO, 1710 Russell Collection, Catalogue No S2-PO1710.11 Signature: "Petrus Michael Orlandus anno 1710" written in ink on the back of the nameboard, possibly copied from the original jackrail by Mabel Dolmetsch. Rose: Initials: . Diameter: 96 Scantlings: Element Length Height Thickness Wood Front: 142 Right-hand end: 142 Left-hand end: 139 Back: 141 Case L keywell: 142 Case R keywell: 142 Baseboard: Italian Style Lid: Keywell - Width: Depth: Soundboard to the top of the case walls: 57-58 Width of string band: = pairs of strings and jackslots measured perpendicular to the strings.

Inside case dimensions (= original dimensions of baseboard without case sides):

Element Measurement
Width: 781 along the front
Left side: 101
Rigt side: 338
Back: 817
Case right of keywell: 73
Keywell: 635
Case left of keywell: 73
Keywell projects: 84
Compass: 3-octave span
String Length Plucking Point
c³ 73 31
f² 106 31
c² 169 31
f¹ 248 37
c¹ 337 38
f 462 45
c 571 41
E/G 661 51
D/F 702 51
F 711 45
C 742 53

Photo: Stefano Meneghini

Birger 1759 (Photo:Stefano Meneghini)

Modern Reproduction

Octave Spinet, Arnold Dolmetsch 1923 (Photo: Vince Ho)

Ottavino spinet was most likley first built by Arnold Dolmetsch as early as the 1920s, as we know that the Dolmetsches utilized their ottavino spinets in the Haslemere Festivals. The German firms Neupert and Ammer were also early ottavini manufacturers.

Today there are several ways to obtain an ottavino:

1. Purchase from a harpsichord firm that mass produce ottavini.
2. Purchase a kit and either build it by oneself or have a professional does the job.
3. Purchase from a professional builder who specialized on building ottavini in small production numbers.
4. Commission a professional builder to build one from scratch as an one off order.
5. Purchase ottavino plans either from early music instrument shops or the museums, and then build the instrument.

1. Today only Neupert still produces a mass production 4' instrument. It is considered a revival instrument, hence not based on any particular historically instrument. It is however, perfect for those who do not mind having their instrument banging around and it certainly can take a lot of road abuse. The touch of a Neupert would need sometime to get used to for those who are not used to play revival instruments.

2. For those who want an instrument that is more historically correct, the most popular way is definitely purchasing a kit, and the Renaissance Workshops' Ottavino Kit is definitely the most popular model around, and many professional makers either made instruments directly from the kit, or utilitized its plan. Ed Kottick's Zuckermann upright ottavino is also an interesting kit. I have played on both of them, and they both feel very different.

3. Matthias Griewisch, Roberto Marioni, Günter Thiele, and Selway Robson are the very few known harpsichord makers who offer ottavini based on historical designs and are not kits. Their workmanship are first class.

4. For those who wants to have an unique ottavino, commisioning is the way to go. Builders frequently build them in an one off basis. My own John Watson ottavino is an example of commissioning. It was commissioned by Frank Butler of New York in 1980. Watson, the Colonial Williamsburg curator, at the time only had made two sister instruments for Colonial Williamsburg for in house use. This ottavino was, according to Watson, inspired by the anonymous ottavino in the Conservatory of Brussels. I am fortunate, as a former Colonial Williamsburg harpsichord student, to take in possession of this instrument.

5. As for purchasing a museum plan to build an ottavino by oneself, it is probably best left to the professionals to do it..

Mass Production

Photo: Neupert

The Neupert Spinettino has been a favorite among musicians who like to have a portable harpsichord. It comes with its own carrying case.


Photo: Vince Ho

Renaissance Workshop Ottavino after a 1595 Victoria and Albert Museum instrument (Photo: Vince Ho)

The Renaissance Workshop's ottavino kit was based on a 1595 Victoria and Albert Museum instrument. It is by far the most popular ottavio kit avaialble in market today. This one was built by Richard Commander.

Photo: Ed Kottick

Zukermann Ottavino virginal kit after #121, Staaliches Institut fur Musikforschung (Photo: Ed Kottick)

Ed Kottick's Zuckermann kit is modeled after an anonymous instrument, #121, in Berlin's Staaliches Institut fur Musikforschung. It has three soundboards - a vertical one in front for the bass, another vertical one in back for the tenor and a horizontal one on top for the alto and treble. One of its more interesting features is the way the bass and tenor jacks run between their strings and their soundboards.

Small Production

Matthias Griewisch Trapezoid octave spinet after G.A. 1627 (Photo: Matthias Griewisch)

Matthias Griewisch Rectangular octave spinet after an anonymous 17th-Century model, outside leather covered. (Photo: Matthias Griewisch)

Spinettino all'ottava, Roberto Marioni (Photo: Roberto Marioni)

64cmx36x11cm, weighs 4Kg, c/e-c"", a=440Hz. Euro 2100.

Günter Thiele Oktavspinett (Photo: Guenther Thiele)

The historical model of the instrument is Italian and is built after the ottavino at the KHM Vienna. 1 Register 4' C/E - c'''. The case has a different painting from the original. The price is 1.800,-- Euro.

Photo: Selway Robson

Spinetta by Selway Robson, 1981 (Photo: Selway Robson)

Selway Robson is famous as an organ maker as well as a harpsichord builder. He can also make a quint pitch version of this instrument.


photo: Stefano Meneghini

Ottavino by Daniele Borghi (Photo:Stefano Meneghini)

photo: Vince Ho

Ottavino by John Watson, 1980 (Photo: Vince Ho)


Ottavino, Anonymous ca.16-17th C., #121, Kunsthistorisches Museum Sammlung Alter Musikinstrumente A-1010 Wien, Neue Berg Republic of Austria Drawn by Stefan Geschwendter, 1984.

Ottavino, J. Gellinger 1677, #52 Universität Leipzig Musikinstrumenten-Museum Täubchenweg 2c Leipzig 7010, Germany

Ottavino, Anonymous 1595. Victoria and Albert Museum. Renaissance Workshop Company

Ottavino, Anonymous, #121, Staaliches Institut fur Musikforschung. Zuckermann Harpsichords International


Ottavino Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna SAM Inv. No. 121: Quicktime Soundfile

Ottavino by Daniele Borghi, played by Daniele Borghi: Meza notte gagliarda (dance, anonymous, 1551) MP3 Soundfile (Courtesy of Stefano Meneghini)


Vince Ho had been playing harpsichord for close to twenty years. He had studied with Colonial Williamsburg's organist James Darling, and also organist and scholar Sandra Soderlund. Vince received his MA in Music History from San Francisco State University. His thesis is "The Italian keyboard settings of the Bergamasca", specialising on early Italian Baroque keyboard music. In addition to being an early keyboard player, he is also a Baroque triple harpist and recorder player. He had also directed Baroque and medieval music workshops for the Davis Early Music Mixer, and was a member of the medieval group Sex Saecla.

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