Birchensha (Berchensha, Birchenshaw, Birkenshaw), John
He represented a new scientific approach, exploring the mathematical basis of musical theory and composition, and attempted to simplify it by reducing it to a logical set of rules. He excited the interest of members of the Royal Society, which on the recommendation of Silas Taylor (1624–78), organised a committee (1664) to discuss his ideas and encourage his research. Though not a member, Birchensha is cited on eight occasions in the Society's minutes (1662–76), attended several of its meetings, presented the results of his research, helped in acoustical experiments, is cited as an authority in judging musical proposals, and is referred to as a ‘judicious and extraordinarily skilful musitian’ (Philosophical Transactions, no. 100 (9 Feb. 1673/4)). Birchensha presented his paper (10 February 1676) on the ‘Grand scale’ (c.1665; BL, Add. MS 4388), which he had earlier noted ‘shall contain and comprehend the whole body of the mathematicall part of musick’ (Miller, 66) and a few easy rules allowing anyone to compose who can neither sing nor play an instrument. He printed a single sheet, now lost, on Plaine rules and directions for composing musick in parts and wrote Twenty-four church tunes with alternative counterpoints added, which is preserved at Magdalene College, Cambridge.
Taylor recorded Birchensha's six rules of composition (‘A collection of rules in musicke . . . with Mr Birchensha's 6 rules of composition’; BL, Add. MS 4910 (c.1668)), and is described by John Evelyn (1655–99) as ‘that rare artist who invented a mathematical way of composure very extraordinary, true as to the exact rules of art but without much harmonie’ (Evelyn, 377 (3 Aug. 1664)). Birchensha's projected Syntagma musicae – advertised for printing by public subscription in Philosophical Transactions, vii, no. 90 (20 January 1672/3), (BL, Add. MS 4388) – promised to deal with the philosophical, mathematical, and practical aspects of music, but was never published, though a preliminary version is preserved in the Royal Society (Boyle papers, xli, no. 1). He claimed that with its help a beginner might in two months, exquisitely and with all the elegancies of music, compose two parts, in three months three parts, and so on to seven parts, and that the deaf would be able to compose melodies, which inspired Brisk's comment in Thomas Shadwell's The humorists (1670): ‘Birkenshaw is a rare fellow, give him his due . . . for he can teach men to compose that are deaf, dumb and blind’ (act III). He translated Templum musicum: or the musical synopsis of . . . Johannes-Henricus Alstedius (1664).
His compositions had a limited circulation; Pepys found no pleasure in the concert of Birchensha's instrumental music, which he attended 10 August 1664. Birchensha's compositions include four fantasia suites and six vocal pieces for tenor and bass with lute accompaniment, which are held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford; ‘Airs’ and twelve voluntaries are preserved at Christ Church, Oxford; and ‘Overture and suite’ is held in the Royal College of Music, London. ‘A very genteel man in his person and behaviour’ (Hawkins, iv, 447), he died in London and is almost certainly the John Birchenshaw who was buried 14 May 1681 in Westminster abbey, London.