John Birchensha: Writings on Music.
This exhaustively researched critical edition presents nearly all the known writings of one of the more intriguing personalities of English 17th-century music, the violist, composer and theorist John Birchensha (c. 1605-81?). Although of no overriding importance as theoretical works in their own right, the many writings of this now forgotten figure offer invaluable insights into musical thought during a particularly important period in England's musical and intellectual history. Birchensha's treatises and related documents as presented in this volume are transcribed from various printed publications and manuscript documents (three of them recently unearthed). The centrepiece of this extensive scholarly project is a lengthy manuscript treatise entitled A Compendious Discourse of the Principles of the Practicall & Mathematicall Partes of Musick (c. 1664). Expressly written by Birchensha for the great philosopher Robert Boyle, this work languished undetected by music historians in a volume from Boyle's library in the Royal Society archives until recently. The editors argue that the Compendious Discourse was a sampler for Birchensha's most ambitious yet sadly unrealised project: to publish a much larger treatise entitled Syntagma musical, that would treat 'of Musick Philosophically, Mathematically, and Practically' (p. 192).
The progression of Birchensha's theorising career is usefully embodied in the arrangement of this book which draws together in chronological order for the first time 10 Birchensha texts (only two works are excluded, both of which are of lesser relevance). In addition to the Compendious Discourse, the present volume also includes three manuscript treatises containing rules of composition, each written for individual pupils and sharing similar material. An account of a demonstration by Birchensha of his 'Compleat Scale of Musick' to the Royal Society (10 February 1676) together with three other documents record his close involvement with that prestigious organisation. Founded in 1660 to further experimental science, the Royal Society played a crucial part in Birchensha's career, a collaboration significant in itself as evidence of the links between science and music that existed in the 17th century. These Birchensha--Royal Society documents each relate to ultimately ill-fated ventures undertaken by Birchensha to promote his musical ideas to the Royal Society fellows, who initially encouraged and supported him, but ultimately became disaffected following his failure to publish the promised Syntagma musicae. Birchensha's much hyped aspiration to establish a 'Compleat Scale of Musick' suffered a similar fate. For this Birchensha planned to publish a chart showing all 'consonant and dissonant intervals suitable to musical harmony' so as to 'make any rationall Man understand more of the mathematicall part of Musick' (Samuel Pepys described it as '[Birchensha's] great Card of the body of Musique, which he cries up for a rare thing ... but not so usefull as he would have it' (p. 11)). The editors' exhaustive exploration of relevant correspondence also helps to expose the very real extent to which Birchensha's music theorising achieved currency at the Royal Society, at a time when that organisation was at its peak of productivity and influence. The great Isaac Newton received and read details of the 'Compleat Scale' to which he modestly responded 'I have not so much skill in that science as to understand it well' (p. 211).
His close links with prominent philosophers of the day notwithstanding, Birchensha approached his theorising as a musician, and it is thus to historians of music (rather than science) that this volume is of primary interest. Birchensha explored all branches of musical theorising, speculative, mathematical and practical, as a tool for the advancement of music as an art form. Living in an age of fundamental stylistic change, Birchensha was not alone in perceiving a need to establish a sound theoretical grounding for music: 'this Noble Science and Art, which, although for the excellency of it in it selfe it is not inferiour to humane science or Art, yet at this day (notwithstanding it be highly esteemed and much used) is the most obscure, difficult, uncertain, irregular and imperfect Science in the world' (p. 86). In seeking to bring together music's diverse theoretical legacy, and impose 'Regularity and Just order' Birchensha offered practical substance where many contemporaries had merely hypothesised (p. 206). That he consistently failed to deliver despite high profile encouragement and support from some important figures of the Scientific Revolution is in itself interesting and significant.
In addition to demonstrating how Birchensha's theorising developed over a period of 15 years, this book's comprehensive inclusion of nearly all Birchensha writings in chronological arrangement provides a further undoubted benefit. By including the publicity and manifestos through which Birchensha sought to hype his theoretical work, scholars are given a real insight into what this composer-theorist sought to achieve through his treatises, which considered in isolation would appear less historically significant than they really are.
We also infer in the unpredictable and enigmatic Birchensha's ambitions, a very clear underlying personal dimension. This personal dimension is explored by the editors of this volume in their lengthy introduction which benefits from some extensive and wide-ranging background research. Following an opening biographical section the editors provide some much needed commentary to the treatises themselves. In this we gain a clearer sense of how Birchensha's overly ambitious theoretical aims were motivated in part by his need to make a living as a music teacher. With hindsight, some of his self-promotion appears selfdefeating, on account of the derision it inevitably attracted. His boast, for example, that his proposed Syntagma musicae would enable a beginner within two months to 'Compose two Parts; in three Months, three Parts; and so forwards to seven Parts . . . (exquisitely, and with all the Elegancies of Musick)' (p. 42) inevitably provoked ridicule. Thomas Shadwell's The Humorists (1671) lampooned Birchensha (as Berkenshaw) as 'a rare fellow' able to 'teach men to compose that are deaf, dumb and blind' (p. 25). Nevertheless Birchensha prospered as a teacher, giving lessons to the well-to-do Samuel Pepys, whose diary also provides valuable source material. This particular association terminated after Pepys criticised Birchensha's treasured rules, which Pepys nevertheless subsequently conceded were 'the best I believe that ever yet were made' (p. 11).
Although a valuable addition to the shelves of any student of 17th-century English music, the nature and scope of this unapologetically scholarly publication present a challenge, even for the most dedicated reader. Birchensha's writings and the editors' commentaries of them traverse a potentially bewildering range of subject areas and disciplines: 17th century music, music theory, science, mathematics, philosophy, and in particular ancient Greek Pythagorean harmonics (which lies at the heart of Bichensha's epistemology) all play a part. An undoubted strength of this edition is the editors' own scholarly backgrounds, both of whom are well-established historians of science. A further scholarly domain explored in great detail in the commentaries is in the sources themselves. While focusing primarily on the theoretical content of Birchensha's writings the editors have tried to convey 'something of the character of each principal source, with additions and alterations kept to a minimum, original page portfolio numbers shown in square brackets' (p. 70). For manuscript texts where more than one source exists, as in the case of the Royal Society-related material, 'priority is given to the earliest and most authoritative' (p. 70), whilst variant readings are indicated via a complex system of footnotes. For each of the 10 sources a lengthy editorial note is provided together with an extensive set of endnotes, some of which exceed the length of the texts to which they relate (these are in addition to the footnotes mentioned earlier!). Virtually each name, theoretical term and allusion is explained in detail, a complex task in itself given Birchensha's often innovative and idiosyncratic approach to his subject and use of terms. The end result is comprehensive and authoritative.
By its very nature, the species of mathematical and seemingly arcane theorising undertaken by Birchensha inevitably arouses fascination in some, but outright derision in many others. We should not be surprised, therefore, to find Birchensha denigrated by his contemporary Matthew Locke as representing 'the platform of insignificant innovation' (p. 1), or by the 18th-century historian Charles Burney as 'a kind of musical adventurer who promised more than he or anybody could perform' (p. 1). More recently Professor Rosamond McGuinness found herself forced to declare that 'compared with Christopher Simpson, one cannot escape the suspicion of charlatanism in dealing with John Birchensha' (p. 1). It is perhaps with such admonishment in mind that the editors of this critical edition are overly modest in their own stated aim for undertaking this project: 'to enable scholars to understand Birchensha's contribution to music theory, however slight it may have been and to judge for themselves his competence, individuality and historical significance' (p. 4, my emphasis). Birchensha's many real deficiencies notwithstanding, we should not allow such disparagement to obscure his real importance as a key proponent of a specific mode of musical thinking and theorising that clearly commanded currency amongst musicians as well as influential scientific minds of the day.
If any criticism may be made of this edition, it is with regard to the commentaries to the texts in the main introduction. Alongside much essential explanation already mentioned, there is at times a tendency to pad sections with material of a descriptive and therefore less interesting nature. This is especially so of the extended account of the Compendious discourse and of the three versions of the rules of composition. The main achievement of this volume is, however, to make available in a critical edition a body of work, much of which was previously unknown and inaccessible. In this Christopher Field and Benjamin Wardhaugh have provided an invaluable service to the scholarship of 17thcentury English music.
University of Cambridge
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|Publication:||Fontes Artis Musicae|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2012|
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