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EXPLORING MUSIC: Performances Beyond Reproach

The MHS Review 390 Vol. 11 No.12 1987

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David M. Greene


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After the great upsurge of musical produc­tion in England under Good Queen Bess, there is no denying that it fell off dismally in the next century. Perhaps such things are cyclic. Perhaps English music had had its day--like that phenomenon we call the Elizabethan theater. One is, of course, tempted to blame the Puritans, who took over the country in the middle of the century.

Oh yes, one reads, I know, about how they have been maligned, how they were really jol­ly and fun-loving in their way. But still they did close the theaters and abolish the Christmas and May Day celebrations and decree that girls shouldn't dance with boys and rip the organs (musical) and statuary and stained glass out of the churches. It's hard to think positively about creeps like that. To be sure, their leader used to sneak choristers up to his apartment to sing him the old-time songs (Latin and Roman Catholic), and he per­mitted mixed dancing at his daughter's wed­ding until dawn, but still.. ..

Anyway, between John Dowland and his contemporaries and that monadnock Henry Purcell at the end of the century, there were precious few English composers of worth or consequence. There was Matthew Locke, highly regarded in his day, but quite conser­vative and probably unknown in the baroque ferment on the Continent. There were the Lawes brothers: Henry who wrote nice songs and little else, and William who died young in the Civil War. And there was dear old John Jenkins.

Jenkins' contemporary, the antiquary An­thony a Wood, who did not care much for his fellow creatures, called him ''the little man with the great soul." Be that as it may, it is quite clear that Jenkins enjoyed the affection of most people he had to do with. Born in the Kentish town of Maidstone within a year of his parents' marriage, he was the son of a carpenter. The carpenter obviously had musical leanings, to judge from the several in­struments catalogued among his belongings, and he was so generous as to leave his son a bandora when he died in 1617.

John grew up to be an admired performer on the lute and particularly on the lyra viol, a sort of viola da gamba popular in England. He once played the latter for Charles I, who marveled at his technique. At the Restoration he was given a post as theorbo player in the King's (Charles II) Musicke, but as he was liv­ing a couple of days' journey outside of Lon­don then, the appointment may have been quasi-honorary.

For the most part, Jenkins seems to have survived on the bounty of his many friends and admirers. He would, apparently, turn up at one door or another, be welcomed, and stay for weeks, months, or years. He reciprocated when he could by giving music lessons to the younger members of the household.

Roger North, a cadet son of Dudley, Baron North, who was one of his pupils, has left us an endearing account of the old boy. Jenkins lived with the Norths for some time, receiv­ing their hospitality and a token salary of four pounds a year-though we are told specifical­ly that he was never on a servant-master footing with any of his patrons. Whatever his relationship with music at Court, he was too feeble in his last years to make the journey to London, but it was decided to continue his salary anyhow. He died at the age of 86 at the home of Sir Philip Wodehouse in Norfolk (1678).

According to North, Jenkins turned out "horseloads" of music. One can believe it: beside 28 vocal pieces, Grove's work-list catalogs over 900 instrumental works, con­sisting almost entirely of pieces for the lyra viol and consort music. (The Grove text says, more cautiously, "over 800 pieces survive"; I find to my chagrin that in the entry in my own biographical encyclopedia I allowed "around 150" to get by.) The character of these works tells one a good deal about Jenkins' place in music: while the European scene is awash in such novelties as cantatas and sonatas and oratorios and operas, he is happily pursuing traditions and forms established in the previous era. (The tale that he wrote the first sonatas in England is without evidence.)

This is not to belittle Jenkins' abilities. What he wrote, such as one hears on this record, was done with great skill. Moreover the works, unlike some of the genre, are quite painless and enjoyable to listen to. The per­formers, some of the best of their kind, are beyond reproach.

Review of The New York Consort of Viol Performs Instrumental Music by John Jenkins

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