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John Jenkins (1592-1678)

Six-Part Consorts

Phantasm Detailed performer information
Download only
Recording details: August 2005
Merton College Chapel, Oxford, United Kingdom
Produced by Jonathan Freeman-Attwood
Engineered by Simon Fox-Gál
Release date: June 2016
Total duration: 66 minutes 8 seconds

The formidable violists of Phantasm turn their attention to the six-part consorts of John Jenkins in a recording originally issued in 2006 on the Avie label.


‘Nothing daunted, these adroit players negotiate Jenkins’s detailed counterpoint with fleet-fingered dexterity, and ever more intricate elaborations are cast around with brazen panache. The results are a delicious mix of Italianate sprezzatura and English restraint’ (BBC Music Magazine)» More

‘Rustic characters jostle for dominance, lovers languish, and alchemists debate. From the sombre to the carefree, Phantasm have given each personality a distinctive voice and each work an absorbing narrative’ (The Independent on Sunday)» More

‘Jenkins’s dense polyphonies sound anything but old-fashioned. He has a personal, vivid style, full of fresh ideas, strong contrasts of mood, bold harmonic excursions and luxuriant sonorities. A spirit of freedom allies itself with, rather than working against, the music’s disciplined counterpoint, and the result is enormously pleasing, especially given performances by Phantasm of such impetus and colour’ (The Sunday Times)» More

‘You have the feeling that you are eavesdropping on six friends who are indulging in viol consorts for their own enjoyment. The recordings are splendidly alive, too’ (Daily Mail)» More

‘Jenkins embraced a wide spectrum of emotions in his own performance, playing with ‘wonderful agility, and odd humours’; this is fittingly matched by Phantasm's professed enjoyment in ‘taking risks in its search for renditions that renew the expressive traditions of early music’ (Early Music)» More

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The Six-Part Consorts by John Jenkins (1592–1678) probably date from the 1620s, a time when full-voiced English polyphony first came under serious threat from the lighter styles of Italian chamber music with its short phrase lengths and breathless twists and turns. While Jenkins, too, was drawn to the ‘easy listening’ of the new sonata textures—judging by hundreds of dances and consort suites which span his long career—his viol consorts positively revel in the traditional rigours of continuous counterpoint. By the end of the century, this was an idiom which philistines would dismiss as too busy, ‘clog’d with somewhat of an English vein’, as one writer later put it. But in the 1620s no one in England yet thought to attack musical artifice; instead, Jenkins shows how the attractions of the new need not trample the pleasures of the old.

What were these pleasures? Nothing less than a fanatic devotion to the equality of parts, the idea of a community of convivial spirits, among whom no one asserts control or is placed at a disadvantage. In such an ideal world, each player takes a viol from a chest of six, tunes his instrument with care, executes his part in time, counts his rests unerringly and passes a long winter’s evening stimulated and refreshed. Given the clever way in which the six parts exchange themes and roles, one can almost imagine Jenkins standing beside the consort, winking approval when a tricky passage falls into place and offering sympathy to those who fall into traps laid to snare the unvigilant into a mistaken entrance. There isn’t a dull moment: the wide-ranging treble parts constantly vie for ascendancy, the fervent tenors compete in companionable rivalry and even the usually lethargic basses engage in surprisingly athletic jumps and lithe leaps.

To borrow a parlance from later chamber music, there is no ‘viola’ part in Jenkins’s consorts, no seat for an aristocratic gentleman whose talents lay rather in riding or hunting and who fiddles inconsequentially while pretending to make an honourable contribution. In Jenkins’s six-part music, you had better not pick up the viol if you can’t hold your own, for your fellow consorters will quickly lose their patience—and their temper. Maddeningly, some writers insist on calling this ‘music for amateurs’, which, given the difficulty in coordinating six wildly interwoven lines, seems rather a bitter pill to swallow for hard-working ‘professionals’. Or are ‘amateurs’ in this case merely ‘lovers’ of complex polyphony?

Some people also ask—is this players’ or listeners’ music?—but the misplaced anxiety of the question pales before the sonorous beauty of Jenkins’s inventive gifts. Despite an addiction to the densest counterpoint, Jenkins achieves a remarkable clarity of expression, not just in the articulation of individual ‘points’ or thematic subjects, but also in the sly peregrination of his roving harmonies. He loves to pay brief visits to lesser known harmonic regions, sampling their local specialities, before gracefully moving the assembled company on to a new venue. Fantasy 5 (track 12), a work of exceptional contrasts, begins with a lengthy reflection on Dowland’s Lachrimae Verae (1599), after which one visits a country dancer practising dotted high jinks, hears the opening of a stately almain, enters a room crammed with tick-tocking clocks, and is finally treated to a ‘grave and harmonious’ close which passes through the keys of A, E, B, G and F before cadencing in D. This is music which delights in Wanderlust.

If Jenkins is too attached to a limited set of canzona-like openings and ecclesiastical closes, this points to a quasi-’symphonic’ conception underlying his six-part project, in which central ideas are continually recast. Even the elevated In nomines with their venerable cantus firmus in long notes resemble related fantasies. Perhaps we are meant to confuse one genre for the other, at least at the beginning of the piece. (Compare In nomine 1 with Fantasy 11, tracks 2 and 7, and In nomine 2 with Fantasy 10, tracks 10 and 13.)

It is true that Jenkins lacks the extroverted brilliance of William Lawes (1602–1645) and shuns Lawesian bad behaviour. Yet he is attracted to enough exuberant madness to unleash his forces in several riots of frenetic activity, as in the two zany trios found in the middle of Fantasy 6 (track 15). Like Lawes, Jenkins also enjoys subverting balanced phrases, which is why his unpredictable sequences are so exciting. The periodicity of dance music—the repetitive strains which prompt dancers to convey something beyond the music—is anathema to his fantasies. Even his two pavans care little for the rounded numbers of bars preferred for dancing: instead, players are invited to quit their seats so as to take up change-ringing (as in the Bell Pavan, track 14) or sing soulful plaints (as in the Pavan in F, track 4).

We don’t know when Jenkins first heard the consorts of Lawes, but there are moments when the older man seems to quote approvingly from his brash, younger contemporary, only to soften his more outrageous gestures, subordinating them to Jenkins’s own more harmonious nature. So, in the third strain of Pavan in F, for example, one hears Lawes’ falling dissonant sighs, a passage which collapses into the sweetest swoon found in the entire collection (track 4). On the other hand, it’s equally plausible that Lawes based his boyish recklessness on a flattering imitation of the liveliest moments found in the elder composer. Given our current state of knowledge, it’s difficult to know which narrative to prefer. Perhaps there is truth in both of them.

Debates about style and chronology only go so far, however, and one can lose sight of what was achieved so magnificently by the great consort composers, each of whom evokes an intimate realm of feeling not really touched by other genres of music, art or literature. With Jenkins, one treasures in particular the muscularity of his themes in minor and their knock-about treatment (Fantasies 1 and 9 and both In nomines, tracks 1, 2, 9 and 10), his evocation of lone voices in the wilderness (Fantasy 3, track 8), as well as the elegiac depths plumbed by the most simple exercise of restraint (Fantasy 11, track 7). If you think this is all a latter-day panegyric, just listen to a contemporary admirer of Jenkins, Thomas Mace (1612–1706), who reflected in the 1670s on what the ‘grave music’ of viol fantasies and pavans meant to those who played them. They were, he writes in Musick’s Monument:

(as it were) so many Pathettical Stories, Rhetorical, and Sublime Discourses; Subtil, and Accute Argumentations; So Suitable, and Agreeing to the Inward, Secret, and Intellectual Faculties of the Soul and Mind; that to set Them forth according to their True Praise, there are no Words Sufficient in Language; yet what I can best speak of Them, shall be only to say, That They have been to my self, (and many others) as Divine Raptures, Powerfully Captivating all our unruly Faculties, and Affections, (for the Time) and disposing us to Solidity, Gravity, and a Good Temper, making us capable of Heavenly, and Divine Influences.

‘Divine raptures’, ‘Pathettical Stories’ and ‘Sublime Discourses’—fanciful descriptions, to be sure, but true to an experience of music which, for all its complexity, calms unruly thoughts and promotes a generosity of spirit. For the most powerful chamber music, no matter what its cultural provenance, satisfies precisely because of its freedom from the constraints of literary narratives and visual representations. No surprise, then, that language is too poor to praise Jenkins sufficiently, but with a pair of open ears, one can still have him penetrate the innermost spaces of the psyche, ‘making us capable of Heavenly, and Divine Influences’.

Laurence Dreyfus © 2016

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