John Birchensha: Writings on Music (Hardback) book cover

John Birchensha: Writings on Music

By Christopher D.S. Field, Benjamin Wardhaugh

© 2010 – Routledge

342 pages

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Hardback: 9780754662136
pub: 2010-01-12

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About the Book

John Birchensha (c.1605-?1681) is chiefly remembered for the impression that his theories about music made on the mathematicians, natural philosophers and virtuosi of the Royal Society in the 1660s and 1670s, and for inventing a system that he claimed would enable even those without practical experience of music to learn to compose in a short time by means of 'a few easy, certain, and perfect Rules'-his most famous composition pupil being Samuel Pepys in 1662. His great aim was to publish a treatise on music in its philosophical, mathematical and practical aspects (which would have included a definitive summary of his rules of composition), entitled Syntagma musicæ. Subscriptions for this book were invited in 1672-3, and it was due to be published by March 1675; but it never appeared, and no final manuscript of it survives. Consequently knowledge about his work has hitherto remained extremely sketchy. Recent research, however, has brought to light a number of manuscripts which allow us at last to form a more complete view of Birchensha's ideas. Almost none of this material has been previously published. The new items include an autograph treatise of c.1664 ('A Compendious Discourse of the Principles of the Practicall & Mathematicall Partes of Musick') which Birchensha presented to the natural philosopher Robert Boyle, and which covers concisely much of the ground that he intended to cover in Syntagma musicæ; a detailed synopsis for Syntagma musicæ which he prepared for a meeting of the Royal Society in February 1676; and an autograph notebook (now in Brussels) containing his six rules of composition with music examples, presumably written for a pupil. Bringing all this material together in a single volume will allow scholars to see how Birchensha's rules and theories developed over a period of fifteen years, and to gain at least a flavour of the lost Syntagma musicæ.


’Reading this volume increases one's curiosity about the place of the Royal Society within Resoration London's musical life… This is a substantial volume, well indexed and with quite an extensive bibliography; it will be of particular interest to specialists in music theory, but it also gives some valuable glimpses of the wider intellectual climate of Restoration London.’ The Consort ’The volume represents the ne plus ultra for a scholarly edition. Not a name, concept or source is mentioned that does not receive a gloss or complete commentary. The introductions and critical apparatuses themselves could serve as a bibliographical entrée to the scholarship of mid-17th-century music theory…a magisterial achievement and certainly the last word in presenting the ideas of this erudite musician caught in the spirit of the Scientific Revolution as he struggled to apply mathematics to the art of music.’ Early Music '… not only a comprehensive collection of Birchensha's writings, but also a fascinating account, both through those writings and the editors' extensive and sensitive commentary upon them, of the career and personality of this 'rare artist'… The editors' contribution both to the conception and execution of this volume is commendable, especially in the extended notes to each chapter which clarify terminology both musical and mathematical, fill in indispensable context, and cross-reference with other theoretical texts. The lengthy Introduction, too, provides a concise and informative account of Birchensha's life and an invaluable overview of his writings and their many interrelationships; it will surely remain the standard biographical account for many years to come. The transcription is exemplary in its clarity and attention to detail.' Viola da Gamba Society Journal '… comprehensive and authoritative… The main achievement of this volume is […] to make available in a critical edition a body of work, much of which was previously unknown and

Table of Contents

Contents: Introduction; Birchensha's reputation as a music theorist; Birchensha's life; The practical part of music; The mathematical and philosophical parts of music; 'To reduce all the parts of musick to a regularity and just order'; The sources; Transcription policy; Dates. John Birchensha's Writings on Music: Dedicatory epistle and preface to Templum Musicum (1664); Letter to the Royal Society (26 April 1664); ' A compendious discourse'; Birchensha's description of his 'grand scale' (9 June 1665); 'Animadversion' for Syntagma musicæ (1672); Synopsis of Syntagma musicæ for the Royal Society (February 1675/6); Birchensha demonstrates his 'compleat scale of musick' to the Royal Society (10 February 1675/6); Rules of composition, I: Silas Taylor's manuscript; Rules of composition, II: William Corbett's manuscript; Rules of composition, III: Francis Withey's manuscript; Bibliography; Index.

About the Authors

Dr Christopher D.S. Field, is Honorary Fellow in Music at University of Edinburgh, UK and Dr Benjamin Wardhaugh, is a Ph.D student in History, University of Oxford, UK

About the Series

Music Theory in Britain, 1500–1700: Critical Editions

The purpose of this series is to provide critical editions of music theory in Britain (primarily England, but Scotland, Ireland and Wales also) from 1500 to 1700. By 'theory' is meant all sorts of writing about music, from textbooks aimed at the beginner to treatises written for a more sophisticated audience. These foundational texts have immense value in revealing attitudes, ways of thinking and even vocabulary crucial for understanding and analysing music. They reveal beliefs about the power of music, its function in society and its role in education, and they furnish valuable information about performance practice and about the context of performance. They are a window into musical culture every bit as important as the music itself.

The editions in this series present the text in its original form. That is, they retain original spelling, capitalization and punctuation, as well as certain salient features of the type, for example, the choice of font. A textual commentary in each volume offers an explication of difficult or unfamiliar terminology as well as suggested corrections of printing errors; the introduction situates the work and its author in a larger historical context.

Jessie Ann Owens is assisted on the series by Series Assistant Editor, Minji Kim.

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Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
MUSIC / General