Birchensha, John (DNB00)

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BIRCHENSHA, JOHN (fl. 1664–1672), musician, was probably a member of the Burchinshaw, Burchinsha, Byrchinshaw, or Byrchinsha family, the senior branch of which were settled at Llansannan in Denbighshire, and the junior branch (in which the name John was of frequent occurrence) at Ryw, Dymeirchion, Flintshire, in the first half of the seventeenth century. Very little is known concerning him. In his early life he resided at Dublin in the family of the Earl of Kildare, but he left Ireland at the time of the rebellion, and after the Restoration lived in London, where he taught the viol. Hawkins adds that he was remarkable for his 'genteel behaviour and person.' In 1664 he published a translation of the ‘Templum Musicum’ of Johannes Henricus Alstedius, on the title-page of which work he designated himself as 'Philomath.' He occupied himself largely with the study of the mathematical basis of music, his theories as to which see in to have attracted some attention at that time. Birchensha's notion, according to a letter from John Baynard to Dr. Holder, dated 20 March 16954 (Sloane MS. 1388, f. 167 a), was ‘That all musical whole-notes are equall; and no difference of half-notes from one another, and that the diversitie of keyes is no more than the musical pitch higher or lower, or will pass for that without any great inconvenience.’ A manuscript volume of fragmentary calculations, made in all probability largely by Birchensha in 1665-6, is preserved in the British Museum (Add. MS. 4388), where may also be seen a copy of the prospectus, or ‘Animadversion’ as he called it, which he issued in 1672 requesting subscriptions to the amount of 500l. in order to enable him to publish the results of his investigations under the title of ‘Syntagma Musicæ.’ This work was to be published before 24 March 1674, and in it Birchensha promised that he would teach how to make ‘airy tunes of all sorts’ by rule, and how to compose in two parts ‘exquisitely and with all the elegancies of music’ within two months. The book was apparently never published, as no copies of it are known to exist. Birchensha’s proposals are alluded to in a play of Shadwell's (quoted in Hawkins's Hist. of Music (1853), ii. 725), where it is said that he claimed to he able to ‘teach men to compose that are deaf, dumb, and blind.’ This seems to allude to some intended work, the manuscript title-page for which (in the British Museum manuscript quoted above) runs as follows: ‘Surdus Melopæus, or the Deafe Composer of Tunes to 4 voices, Cantus, Altus, Tenor, Bassus. By helpe whereof a deafe man may easily compose good melodies. Gathered by observation.' In 1672 Birchensha published Thomas Salmon’s ‘Essay to the Advancement of Musick,' for which he wrote a preface. He also printed a single sheet of ‘Rules for Composing in Parts.' Of his music almost the only specimens extant are preserved in the Music School Collection, Oxford, where are some vocal pieces by him for treble and bass, with lute accompaniment, and twelve manuscript voluntaries in the Christ Church collection. John Evelyn in 1667 (Aug. 3) heard Birchensha play. He mentions him as ‘ that rru~s artist who invented a mathematical way of composure very extraordinary, true as to the exact rules of art, but without much harmonie' (Diary, ed. Bray, p. 297). The date of his death is unknown, but one John Birchenshaw, who may possibly have been the subject of this notice, was buried in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey 14 May 1681.

[Hawkins’s Hist. of Music (1853). ii. 716. 725; Burney’s Hist. of Music, iii. 472; Heraldic Visitations of Wales (ed. Meyrick, 18-16), 300, 347; Add. MSS. 4388, 4910; Cat. Music School Collection; Chester's Registers of Westminster Abbey; information from the Rev. J. H. Mee.]

W. B. S.