Friday, 11 June 2010

Discovering Jenkins

Andrew Ashbee's acclaimed introduction to the life and works of John Jenkins (1592-1678) has recently been published in paperback by Toccata Press. Jenkins was the most prolific and the most esteemed of English composers between the death of Byrd and the rise of Purcell. Here, Dr Ashbee reveals how he discovered this underrated master:

I was first made aware of a composer called John Jenkins in a book: Maidstone 1549-1949, commemorating the quarter-centenary of the granting of the town’s royal charter. It opened with ‘A pageant of history’, compiled by the curator of the Maidstone Museum, Mr. L.R.A.Grove, and included a paragraph about Jenkins sandwiched between two unedifying entries: ‘1590: The quarters of some traitors are displayed upon two poles set upon the battlements of the county prison’; and ‘1600: a baker is put in the stocks, with a sample of his bad bread placed before him, as a punishment.’ 1949 was the year I entered Maidstone Grammar School, becoming a flautist, and Jenkins was put out of mind. On moving to the Royal Academy of Music I noticed (in my first year) that the Peter Latham Prize was available to a third-year student presenting a 5000-word essay on a musical topic of their choice. I determined to enter, with John Jenkins as my subject, and during the intervening years found out what I could via the Academy’s library and that of the University of London. ‘John Jenkins and his times - a biographical introduction’ was ready for presentation at the due time, but no notice of the competition appeared. On enquiring why not, I was told that the competition had garnered no entries in the years since it was first offered, so it would not be held!

The exercise had naturally stimulated my interest in the composer, although my research had indicated that there was little published about him. Nor were there more than a handful of pieces by him available. In my fourth year I was fortunate to be included among a small group of students for a one-year course ‘The Performance of Early Classical Music’, which Sir Thomas Armstrong had arranged. We had the experience of some of the finest scholars and musicians as our tutors: Thurston Dart, Denis Stevens, Paul Steinitz, George Malcolm, Geraint Jones. We learned for the first time about microfilms and Xeroxes, about editing early music and ways to perform it. I also completed my B.Mus degree that same year. One invaluable off-shoot was that I was able to gain a Reader’s ticket to the British Museum (as it was then), giving me access for the first time to a wealth of Jenkins’s music in contemporary manuscripts.

The next logical step was to work towards a Ph.D. degree with Jenkins as my topic. A working title proved difficult to establish and I was sent to see H. K. Andrews at Oxford, who devised a lengthy one. But Thurston Dart, newly appointed Professor at King’s College, London, threw this out and we eventually agreed that Jenkins’s four-part music would be an ideal subject: of manageable size, with music varied in style and form. He offered the further temptation that my music examples could become a volume in the Musica Britannica series - this materialised in 1967 as volume 26.

When I began, I had no idea of the quality of Jenkins’s music. I became aware that two American scholars, Robert Warner and Helen Sleeper, had both studied him. Warner’s dissertation on Jenkins’s fantasias (1951) was the only substantial work. Helen Sleeper published very little before she died, except for a fine edition of various Jenkins pieces (Wellesley Edition, No. 1). But her notes are at the Pendlebury Library of Music, Cambridge, and these gave me many leads. When I compare the bibliography I made for the Academy competition with what is available now, I am gratified that I have played some part in bringing Jenkins’s music to a wider audience. Today editions of virtually all of his major works are published or planned. The one or two recordings of his music available in 1961 have been replaced by a substantial list of CDs. Likewise the few pioneering viol consorts of the 1950s have been replaced by a great number of amateur and professional groups, encouraged by the Viola da Gamba Society. My assessment of Jenkins in Harmonious Musick I as ‘the most important and successful mainstream composer of instrumental music in England in the fifty years between the death of Gibbons and the emergence of Purcell’ holds true. Of course his great contemporary William Lawes tends to acquire all the publicity. Lawes’s music is flamboyant, extrovert, angular and daring, compared with Jenkins’s quieter, smoother lines, with their subtle exploitation of harmonic and key colours. The one boldly fought for (and sacrificed his life for) his King, the other served his time quietly in the country, supporting Royalist families in those ‘Barbarous and Calamitous Times’. Both enrich our musical life immeasurably.

The Harmonious Musick of John Jenkins I: The Fantasias for Viols by Andrew Ashbee is available now in paperback from all good booksellers.

1 comment:

Ralph Locke said...

Fascinating story of a lifelong dedication to bringing back the music of a major composer! Richard Taruskin's six-volume Oxford History of Western Music makes room for a good deal of fascinating discussion of seventeenth-century viol music--Henry Lawes especially (in vol. 2).
Reading this blogpost led me to look on, where I found numerous very skilled and soulful renderings of viol consort pieces by John Jenkins. This one has a film of a quietly flowing river (location unnamed) to watch as you listen--and it somehow fits well....
The piece is a sarabande, and sarabandes by anybody tend to be wonderful, full of gentle flow and perhaps even (now that I'm thinking visually) ripples!