Friday 9 March 2012

'An Hieroglyphical and shadowed lesson...'

My recent belated discovery of the wonders of Purcell also opened my ears to the beauty of viol music, with its sweet softness of tone. By chance I recently came across a piece by one John Jenkins, who was, I learnt, the supreme composer of his time for viol consorts (and a fine player himself). His time was very long - in effect from Byrd to Purcell, unfortunately including the Civil War and Commonwealth - and, to judge from his Wikipedia entry, he seems to have been as amiable and well-liked as he was talented. Intriguingly, he was in his later years a friend of Sir Thomas Browne's (though sadly he does not figure in my edition of Browne's letters). The author of Jenkins' Wikipedia entry clams that his music is the closest thing to 'an aural representation of the sensibility of this physician-philosopher'. I'm not sure how true that is, but I have certainly enjoyed listening to a CD of Jenkins's works for viol consorts. Here is the remarkable - and untypically programmatic - Newark Seidge, which, with only viols and a chamber organ, portrays the alarums and excursions of battle, the celebration of victory and the mourning for the dead as Prince Rupert relieved Newark in 1644.
It is pleasing to think of Jenkins playing for his friend Browne, who clearly loved music. In Religio Medici Sir Thomas writes:
'Whosoever is harmonically composed delights in harmony; which makes me much distrust the symmetry of those heads which declaim against all Church-Musick. For my self, not only from my obedience, but my particular Genius, I do embrace it: for even that vulgar and Tavern-Musick, which makes one man merry, another mad, strikes in me a deep fit of devotion, and a profound contemplation of the First Composer. There is something in it of divinity more than the ear discovers: it is an Hieroglyphical and shadowed lesson of the whole world, and creatures of GOD; such a melody to the ear, as the whole World, well understood, would afford the understanding. In brief, it is a sensible fit of that harmony which intellectually sounds in the ears of GOD.'


  1. Many thanks for that Nige. And I too now come across him by chance and will spread the word wider. That is marvellous and I'm off in search of more. Bugger the office work I need more viols and more John Jenkins.

  2. Decades of reading Browne and listening to Jenkins led me to make the Wikipedia statement you cite. Jenkins Pavan in g minor is sublime, it's on the Naxos and the Virgin disc by Fretwork.

    The musicologist Wilfred Mellors however claims that J.S. Bach's Orchestral suites 3 & 4 closely mirror Browne's sensibility. Browne's music of course lays in the 'full organ-stops' and declamatory prose of 'Urn-Burial', 'The Garden of Cyrus' being much more visually orientated. It's pure speculation of course that Jenkins and Browne even met, we will never know, but given the fact that Kimberley, the village of the estate of Sir Philip Wodehouse is a mere 7 miles from Norwich and that Wodehouse corresponded with Browne even making this marvellous anagram - 'ter bonus cordatus homo' re-arranged = doctor thomas brouneus) I like to believe Browne(d.1682) heard Jenkins (d.1678) play. I do like posting idle speculation on Wikipedia which cannot easily be refuted ! Typo alert - Hieroglyphical Cheers !

  3. Hydriotaphia! I believe that's the first time I've had a response from a Wikipedia writer. I'm sure you're right about Jenkins and Sir Thos, even if there's no documentation. The G minor Pavane is indeed v beautiful - as is the G minor In Nomine - it seems to have been his key... Oh and thanks for the spellcheck - my spelling gets worse with every passing year.
    Glad to have put you on the Jenkins trail, Banished!