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The Harmonious Musick of John Jenkins: Volume 1, The Fantasias for Viols

359 pages
First Published 1992
Toccata Press

ISBN 0-907-689-34-5

John Jenkins was remarkably long-lived; probably born in 1592, he died in 1678, so his long life covered some remarkable events in English history. Involved in court masques under Charles I, he lived through the Civil War, the Interregnum and the Restoration. Much of our information about Jenkins comes from later writers such as Anthony Wood and Roger North. But, though we possess inadequate biographical information, over one thousand of his compositions survive. To solve this riddle, Andrew Ashbee has written a two-volume study of the composer. This first volume includes a biographical sketch along with a discussion of Jenkinsí fantasias for viols. The composerís remaining works are considered in the second volume.

Ashbeeís biographical sketch covers just under one hundred pages in a book of over three hundred pages. This reflects the state of our knowledge. There are few primary sources for Jenkins and much that we donít know. His exact birth date has to be deduced. His father was a cabinet-maker in Maidstone, but in his will left a remarkable number of musical instruments leading to speculation that he might have been an instrument maker. We donít even know where Jenkins trained, though there is speculation that he might have been apprenticed to a professional musician in the household of a gentleman.

Jenkinsí early life is also a mystery, which is profoundly annoying because this was the period when he started writing some of his major works. Ashbee deduces that Jenkins probably lived in London, but there is not much to go on. Our first major sighting of him is in 1634 when he took part in the masque The Triumph of Peace put on by the Inns of Court. The music was composed by William Lawes and Simon Ives. Jenkins played a variety of instruments and received £10 for his pains. His autograph, surviving on the official receipt for the money, has played a significant role in identifying the composerís hand in manuscripts.

From then on, Jenkinsí life is easier to track as he spent much of his time in some sort of service to a series of gentle families in East Anglia. It is thanks to the Norths at Kirtling that we have some significant collections of Jenkinsí music produced during the composerís life-time. On the Restoration, Jenkins received a court post but was getting to be quite old by the standards of the day. He still retained connections with gentlefolk in East Anglia where he was to retire.

Most commentators seem to agree that Jenkins the man was courteous and charming, though most of these comments date from later on in his career. Ashbee points out that old people were often considered to be saintly at the time, so we cannot read too much into this. Beyond that we know very little, and certainly could not begin to reconstruct a personal life. There seem to be no mention of a wife or any personal relationships beyond friendships made with colleagues.

Andrew Ashbee has found many primary sources which touch on Jenkinsí life. His excellent biographical sketch includes quotations from many of the sources, allowing the readers to construct for themselves what they can of Jenkinsí life.

Ashbee follows the biographical sketch with an excellent summary of the history of the English Consort Fantasia up to Jenkins. This is lucidly written and makes a fine introduction to the subject. Ashbee also includes a chapter on the manuscript sources for the music. In lieu of any other evidence, much information can be deduced from such sources.

Finally we reach the meat of the book, chapters discussing the six-part works, the four-part fantasias and associated pavans, the consorts in five parts and the fantasias in three parts.

In each of these chapters the sources for the music are considered and what this can tell us. Then for each piece, there is discussion of stylistic and dating issues along with analysis, including many excellent music examples. Ashbee is concerned to learn all he can from the pieces, including comparisons between parallel works. This means that, though the book is comprehensive, the order in which the works are considered is not necessarily numerical. This means that the book works well if you read it at one sitting. It is more problematical if you want to dip in and read about a particular work, before listening to it.

Ashbee writes clearly and lucidly, but this is not a light book. Many people will find the biographical chapters fascinating but might have problems with the musical analysis and discussion of sources in the later chapters. If you have any interest in viol consorts then this is profoundly illuminating. Such a shame that Naxosís disc of Jenkinsí music has been deleted, as this would have made a wonderful aural counterpoint to a fine study.

Robert Hugill


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