John Jenkins is one of the most remarkable English composers
of the 17th century. He reached the exceptional age of 86 which
means that he experienced the many trials and tribulations in
politics and society including the Commonwealth and the Restoration.
He also saw the aesthetics change from the late Elizabethan era
to the period we call 'baroque'. And these changes left their
mark on his oeuvre.
He left over 800 compositions, but that is practically all we
know about him. No portrait, very little biographical detail
- he didn't even make efforts to get his music printed. Apart
from pieces which were included in contemporary collections his
music was not printed before the 20th century. From what was
written about him one gets the impression he was a very modest
character. His pupil Roger North wrote: "Mr Jenkins was
a very gentile and well bred gentleman, and was allways not onely
welcome, but greatly valued by the familys wherever he had taught
and convers't. He was constantly complaisant in every thing desired
of him ..."
When after the Restoration he became part of the Private Musick
at court he was paid until his death, even though he wasn't able
to play any more due to his age - another sign of the high respect
This disc gives a nice overview of the change in style which
can be traced in his oeuvre. The programme contains four so-called
'Fantasy-suites', a modern term for a fantasy which is followed
by two shorter movements. The Suites Nos. 11 and 17 are from
a collection of 17, in which the opening fantasy is followed
by an almain and an ayr. These pieces are rooted in the consort
music of the renaissance era. It is nevertheless remarkable that
the treble part is written for the violin rather than the treble
viol. At the time these suites were probably written the violin
was a new and still relatively unknown instrument in England.
He must have known the violin from his childhood as in this parents'
household there were "Seven Vialls and Violyns". John
Jenkins was the first composer in England to write for the violin.
The other two suites are stylistically different as they make
use of the diminution technique which had become very popular
on the continent and was used in England in particular by Christopher
Simpson. The parts for the violin and the viola da gamba have
become considerably more virtuosic and are treated in a more
individualistic way. The whole range of the viola da gamba is
explored up to its limit. In addition, whereas the organ part
in the early suites was written out, here the bass consists of
a genuine basso continuo part.
Also late compositions are the Aria in A and the Sonata in d
minor/D. The Aria is a beautiful melodious piece showing Jenkins' "lyrical
inventiveness" as Andrew Ashbee describes one of the composer's
features in his article in New Grove.
This disc also contains two pieces for the 'lyra viol'. The first
is the Divisions in A with basso continuo, which according to
Simone Eckert are putting even Christopher Simpson in the shade.
I don't know about that but it is certainly right to bracket
The four pieces in A are written for viola da gamba solo, and
come from a manuscript called "ms Goëss" which
is preserved in Ebenthal in Austria. It is very likely this manuscript
was put together by Dietrich Steffkin, a close friend of Jenkins,
who had worked in England but lived in the Netherlands during
the Commonwealth period and not only collected music but also
sent Jenkins the newest music from the continent. The manuscript
contains a number of pieces by both Jenkins and Steffkin.
As one may gather from this description of the programme this
disc is highly interesting and contains a good variety of styles
and compositional genres. And thanks to the interpretation by
the Hamburger Ratsmusik it is also a very entertaining and captivating
disc. The four players are all excellent musicians who impress
with their impeccable technique. They have also captured the
spirit and the style of Jenkins' music very well. I know some
older recordings of English 17th-century music by German musicians
which were too rigid and too stiff, but nothing of that is noticeable
here. The interpreters play with great vitality and rhythmic
precision. The sound of the violin and the viola da gamba is
brilliant and the balance within the ensemble is also very good.
Simone Eckert has written lucid programme notes in German. Unfortunately
the English translation is not always correct and sometimes misses
This is an outstanding disc which makes Jenkins shine and sheds
light on the unique talent of this English master of the 17th
century. And as he left more than 800 compositions there is definitely
still a lot of work to do.
Johan van Veen