On tackling John Jenkins’ viol fantasias

January 22, 2010

Playing John Jenkins is not technically easy for amateur viol consort players because there is a stark move away from the homophony and tight imitation in Italian madrigalesque motives that one might have grown used to playing late 16th century and the earliest music of the 17th century. The most immediate features of Jenkins’ writing are his independent part-writing, the long drawn-out phrases and idiosyncratic syncopation. Initially challenging, these characteristics of Jenkins become pure delight. As Andrew Ashbee quite rightly says in his article on Jenkins in Early Music magazine, “All Jenkins’s viol fantasias are pervaded by a unique and unrestrained lyricism.” There is none of the predictability of Tomkins, the choppiness of Coperario or the earnestness of Gibbons.

A consort is ready for Jenkins when it has moved well past the likes of Coperario and is already exploring with relative ease Ward, Ferrabosco and Gibbons. But Jenkins moves beyond even these three into realms of unpredictability and lyrical freedom.

When initially tackling Jenkins, amateur consort players get caught up with their technical problems and these can justifiably overshadow any feeling of growth or improvement with Jenkins. The Jenkins fantasias are however easily comprehensible in their overall organic structure and perhaps if amateurs saw where they are most likely to break down, then perhaps everything will be carried along with maximum equanimity. At the end of the day, playing Jenkins must be a delight rather than a chore, uplifting rather than dispiriting.

If a consort breaks down in the first ten bars, it’s either because of tension associated with an unfamiliar key like Cminor, or thinking to the end of long melodic phrases or because of the counting in rests leading to one’s own entry. Bars 10-20 will see increased interweaving of fugal melody and tensions will rise. Overall volume may rise with increasing fear. Focussing on the independence of the part-writing means the whole may lose its airiness.

Breaking down in bars 20-30 is entirely predictable because this is where the fugal counterpoint is at its most knotty and complex. Unrelenting augmentation of fugal motives in eighth-note runs and sudden stops and starts is inevitable here. I think it’s important that the consort clearly recognises the culmination of the fugal enterprise around bar 30 or so; it’s difficult to predict when reading just from a part book. After bar 30 or so, one can relax, savouring the drift into the longer notes for the close.

Not all consorts will break up the fantasia into digestible chunks, starting with the easy finale, moving to the searching beginning (the laying out of the Point) and consciously tackling the middle hard bits last, before putting the whole thing together. Of course it’s only natural that we’d all prefer it fell into place from beginning to end without any ‘hard work’. A strong consort leader might, at the very least though, point out the middle significant cadence and the structural features leading to it and from it.



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