Tobias Hume

Tobias Hume


• 1579 1645


Capt. Tobias Hume was a remarkably unsuccessful composer in his lifetime, but the qualities that put off his contemporaries attract today's admirers of viol music. Hume's music was nearly as eccentric as the man himself; it exploited the viol's wide dynamics and ability to sustain a melodic line, in contrast to the more contrapuntally oriented lute, which the viol was slowly supplanting in popularity during Hume's lifetime. Hume filched brief musical phrases from other men's compositions and incorporated them into new pieces of widely varying moods, often with odd titles (My Mistresse hath a Pritty Thing, Twickledum Twickledum).

Hume himself was every bit as colorful as his music, perhaps more so. Despite his serious musical efforts -- he published two extensive collections of pieces -- he though of himself primarily as a soldier. Nothing is known of his early life; he seems to have spent many years traipsing across Europe as a mercenary, serving as an officer in the Swedish and Russian armies (it was in the former that he achieved the rank of captain; late in life, he claimed to be a colonel). The end of the war between Sweden and Poland in 1629 probably sent Hume back home to England for good. He did not enjoy financial success; that year he entered London's Charterhouse, a former priory redesigned as a home for "distressed" gentlemen, and died there in 1645, after several years of issuing periodic, unanswered missives offering his services to the English king to, among other things, crush the Catholic rebellion in Ireland that began in 1642.

Even while soldiering, Hume aspired to be a recognized composer promoting the virtues of the viol against those of the lute. He published two big books of music; the first, in 1605, is full of fanciful instrumental dances and meditations and stands as the largest collection of music for solo lyra viol by a single composer in the early seventeenth century. The second, from 1607, titled Captaine Humes Poeticall Musicke, is more stylistically circumspect, intended as it was to gain the patronage of Queen Anne. In general, Hume's pieces make few technical demands on their players (suggesting that Hume himself was no virtuoso), relying instead on interesting sonorities and musical invention.