- A Newly-Identified Setting of Herbert’s “Even-song” by John Jenkins
George Herbert’s reputation as a musical poet has a long history – a reputation justified by the content of his lyrics themselves, where musical conceits spark his devotional poetic imagination.1 The poet frequently finds himself “Rising and falling” on the wings of liturgical music (“Church-musick”); or his lyrics offer detailed musical emblems, as in “Easter” when the lute becomes the wood of the cross, on which Christ’s “stretched sinews taught all strings, what key / Is best to celebrate this most high day” (“Easter”); and – as in these lines from “Easter,” where his musical emblem rings with a pun on “taught/taut” – his lyric ear is constantly alert to the aural potential and quasi-musical properties of language.2 Herbert was frequently identified by his contemporaries with “David, and the other Psalm-men” as “the sweet singer of the Temple,” and his own musical activities are well documented.3 As his early biographer Izaac Walton noted,
His chiefest recreation was Musick, in which heavenly Art he was a most excellent Master, and, did himself compose many divine Hymns and Anthems, which he set and sung to his Lute or Viol; and, though he was a lover of retiredness, yet his love to Musick was such, that he went usually twice every week on certain appointed days, to the Cathedral Church in Salisbury; and at his return would say, That his time spent in Prayer, and Cathedral Musick, elevated his Soul, and was his Heaven upon Earth: But before his return thence to Bemerton, he would usually sing and play his part, at an appointed private Musick-meeting; and, to justifie this practice, he would often say, Religion does not banish mirth, but only moderates, and sets rules to it.4
It is not known precisely to what music Herbert set and sang his own lyrics, though it has been convincingly argued that his practice was to compose contrafacta, writing new words to existing music.5 No [End Page 23] musical settings from Herbert’s lifetime are extant, though it was not long before his verse began to attract composers, and musicians continue to be drawn to his devotional lyrics.
In 1962, Vincent Duckles drew attention to six Herbert settings by John Jenkins included in a collection of the composer’s songs in manuscript partbooks in Christ Church, Oxford:
1). “The Shepherds sing, but shall I silent be” (the second stanza of “Christmas”)
2). “Awake, sad heart” (“The Dawning”)
3). “O take thy lute” (the final three stanzas of “Ephes. 4.30: Grieve not the Holy Spirit, &c.”)
4). “And art thou grieved” (the first three stanzas of “Ephes.4.30”)
5). “Then with our trinity of light” (the final four stanzas of “The Starre”)
6). “Bright spark” (the first four stanzas of “The Starre”)6
As Duckles noted, at the time of Herbert’s death in 1633, the composer “was a mature musician of forty-one, quite capable of writing music that was in circulation during the poet’s lifetime.”7 It is consequently possible that these pieces were composed and performed during Herbert’s lifetime, though it is more likely that they postdate the poet’s death. It is probable that the Christ Church songs date from the 1630s, and David Pinto has argued that Jenkins’s Herbert settings were transcribed into the partbooks after 1634.8
To this number, we can now add a seventh Herbert song by Jenkins: a setting of words extracted from Herbert’s poem “Even-song” included in a set of late seventeenth-century partbooks preserved in York Minster Library. This new setting is valuable for being indicative of the ways in which Jenkins approached Herbert’s writings, suggestive of his familiarity with what has become known as the metaphysical school of poetry, as well as offering new evidence concerning the date Jenkins may have been writing his Herbert settings.
Born at Maidstone in Kent, the precise date of Jenkins’s birth is not known: we can infer from the inscription on his gravestone that he was born in 1592 (or possibly late 1591...