IS AN identity crisis something you create in yourself, or can it be imposed, as in the case of Tobias Hume? The name Tobias comes from the Apocryphal books of the Bible, which were not accepted by the Protestants: Tobias Hume may be presumed, then, to have come from a Roman Catholic family, but since we know neither the date nor place of his birth, his life remains in many respects a mystery. We do know that he finally made his way to London in his 30s, no doubt hoping for preferment at the court which, by then, was Scottish, James VI having acceded to the English throne in 1603.

So who was Hume? Did he hale from the Borders, the homeland of the Humes? But all the dictionaries in my younger days described Tobias Hume as an English composer and poet, and you will still find him described thus on the internet by scholars at Leiden University, who should know better.

In fact he was a Scot. An entry in Queen Anne’s papers, for April 3, 1606, clearly identifies him as “Tobias Hume a Scottish Musicon in reward from her Matie according to her Highnes pleasure signified by Daniell Bachelor”. That great historian of Scottish music, Henry George Farmer, had long before suggested Hume was a Scot, and Hume’s profession as a mercenary soldier was certainly a pointer. “My profession beeing, as my Education hath beene, Armes, the onely effeminate part of mee, hath beene Musicke; which in me hath beene alwaies Generous, because never Mercenarie.”

Another who long ago realised that Tobias Hume must have been a Scot was the distinguished Polish writer Jerzy Pietrkiewicz, with whom I was privileged to strike up a friendship initiated by Jerzy’s novel Loot And Loyalty. This remarkable work featured Tobias Hume as its “hero” and its spine included a Saltire. I was determined to meet Jerzy Pietrkiewicz, luckily did so, and now hold him in fond memory. He was a controversial and strange figure, poorly represented by his Wikipedia entry (go to Nina Taylor-Terlecka’s obituary in The Independent or to Jerzy’s autobiography In The Scales Of Fate for a more rounded picture). I mention this because of an extraordinary coincidence – as I interpreted it – to do with Tobias Hume and Chernobyl. Jerzy regarded it in a completely different light, his highly intellectual mind being also much drawn to mysticism and even the occult. This is the passage from The True Petition of Colonel Hume . . , to the House of Lords, published by John Giles in London in 1642, which had intrigued Jerzy.

“I am an old and experienced Souldier, and have done great service in other forraine Countries as when I was in Russia, I did put thirty thousand to flight, and killed six or seven thousand Polonians by the art of my instruments of warre when I first invented them.”

What in God’s name had Hume invented that could deal out such horror and death? I regarded it, and still do regard it, as wild fantasy on Hume’s part. But in Jerzy’s novel he had Hume gather together all the pestilences of the Pripet marshes into a hideous structure which, on collapse, poisoned everything and everybody as it spread through the water system for hundreds of miles.

Jerzy’s Loot And Loyalty was published in 1955. In 1986 the nuclear plant at Chernobyl in the heart of the Pripet marshes suffered a catastrophic failure and polluted not just its own immediate area, but many countries. It is still an international hazard. For Jerzy this was not so much the coincidence of an imagined and a real occurrence as a single apocalyptic event, connected by who knows what deep channels of his mind or what workings of The Cosmic Clock – a radio play of disturbing originality by Jerzy himself.

Hume’s claim was, surely, fanciful, as the rest of his petition suggests, with its rugged prose style and eccentric leanings. Indeed such was his eccentricity that it is a match for that of Sir Thomas Urquhart of that Ilk, of whom Alan Riach wrote last week. I wonder had Urquhart encountered Hume’s music and writings? They were both soldiers and creative artists, and both frankly acknowledged the needs of the body as well as of the mind. Here follows a list of titles of some of Hume’s pieces, in the order in which he published them: My Mistress Hath A Pretty Thing, She Loves It Well, Hit It In The Middle, Tickle Tickle, Rosamund, I Am Falling, Tickle Me Quickly, Touch Me Lightly.

Bless him! He could have written the manual. But don’t be deceived by this playfulness. His Pavans are amongst the most profound music for solo instrument of any period. The great Spanish musician, Jordi Savall, performs these with mastery and Claude Chauvel describes several of the works as “de la meilleure veine et d’une incontestable originalité”, adding that the Pavans are “noble et austère”. Noble and austere indeed. Nothing quite so searching as this music for solo bass viol was to be composed for over a century, when it took Bach and his solo cello suites to stir those depths and reach those heights using no more than a single stringed instrument.

In Hume’s case, that single stringed instrument was the viola-da-gamba or bass viol and his advocacy of it in preference to the lute provoked that great lutenist, John Dowland, to protest against this “stranger from beyond the seas”. Dowland might well have been jealous, for Hume’s handling of the bass viol is masterly – and revolutionary. He was the first ever to employ the back of the bow (col legno) and made wonderful use of it in Harke Harke where he contrasts the bass viol’s slightly husky sound of bow on strings with plucking the strings (pizzicato) and ending with col legno.

A Souldiers Resolution with its musical imitations of trumpets, “Cettill drum”, “Pelmel” and “March away” also ends with the back of the bow on the strings. A parallel tribute to Hume’s profession of arms is The Souldiers Song – a stunning expression of delight in the thrills of combat, sung virtuosically by Thomas Walker in Concerto Caledonia’s unmatched tribute to “Captain Tobias Hume”. It is this CD’s cover which provides us with Joseph Davie’s image, splendidly imagined, for we have no other images of Hume.

Hume was also unusual in giving instructions as to the mood of performance, such as “Play this passionat”; and pieces such as Good Again breathe a grateful air of recovery from some unspecified illness or sorrow. This is a man who might well have accepted Byron’s self-definition as a Scot – that his heart leaps to his head.

Wikipedia describes Hume as “a prankster” on the basis of one piece – A Lesson for Two Persons to Play Upon one Bass Viol. Formerly thought impossible, it requires one of the players to sit in the lap of the other, as discovered by Lucy Skeaping, happily seated upon her husband, each with a bow, she on four strings, he on three. Not so much a prank as a delightful cooperation, I would have thought. But listen to Thomas Walker’s magnificent, almost agonised, singing of What Greater Griefe and then you will understand that this is no prankster but a composer of extraordinarily expressive power.

A great consolation for Tobias Hume, apart from his viola-da-gamba, was his pipe. Tobacco was a recently imported commodity of which James VI and I thoroughly disapproved, famously and accurately describing it as “a custom loathesome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black stinking fume thereof nearest resembling the horrible Stygian fume of the pit that is bottomless”.

Hume had a different take on it, as both text and music of his song Tobacco from his 1605 The First Part of Ayres assert:

“ … Love makes men scorn all coward fears, So doth tobacco.

Love often sets men by the ears, So doth tobacco.

Tobacco, tobacco, Sing sweetly for tobacco!

Tobacco is like love, o love it.

For you see I have proved it.”

Hume’s second publication, Captaine Hume’s Poeticall Musicke of 1607, was dedicated to Queen Anne, but he was already in desperate circumstances: “I will only presume in most devoted zeale, to offer up this last hope of my labours, to your most princely acceptance, humbly imploring, that it would please your thrice-royall spirit, not to esteeme my Songs unmusicall, because my Fortune is out of tune; or to grant me little grace, because my deserts may be valued nothing: but be once pleasd (Right excellent Princes) as the onely and last refuge of my long expecting hopes, to patronize and second the modest ends of the Author of these uncommon Musiques, not for anything he yet can claime of just merit, but for what ample gracings of the King and my excited affection to do your Majesty service, may happily expect.”

Alas, alas, Hume’s end was as miserable as could be. Reduced to the charity of the Charterhouse and his mind clearly gone to pieces, he was utterly impoverished, hungry and humiliated. I will end with part of his moving address to their Lordships, often cited to emphasise his eccentricity, perhaps allowing us to turn away our ears from his impassioned appeals to our musical awareness. Don’t do it. Don’t forget him. Honour this old soldier who gave us wit and beauty, humour, sorrow and triumph, that we ourselves may never be accused of allowing such an end.

“I am an old and experienced Souldier, and have done great service in other forraine Countries . . . And therefore I humbly beseach you all Noble Lords, that you will not suffer me to perish for want of food, for I have not one penny to helpe me at this time to buy me bread, so that I am like to be starved for want of meat and drinke, and did walke into the fields very lately to gather snailes in the nettles, and brought a bagge of them home to eat, and doe now feed on them for want of other meate, to the great shame of this land ...”

There are many recordings of Hume’s music. First and foremost is Concerto Caledonia’s Captain Tobias Hume , Delphian DCD34140.

Outstanding also are the following: Captaine Tobias Hume Musicall Humors 1605, ASTREE E 7723. Bass viol solos, Jordi Savall: and Tobias Hume, HARMONIA MUNDI RD77165. Consort items and songs, Hesperion XX.

A Souldiers Resolution, Move MD 3232, Tobias Hume, pieces for solo bass viol and songs from The First Part of Ayres, Miriam Morris, Christopher Field.

Play This Passionate, VIRGIN CLASSICS VC7 91451-2, 5 solo bass viol items, Sarah Cunningham.

The Spirit of Gambo Tobias Hume, GLOSSA GCD 920402. Consort items and songs with Emma Kirkby.

Dramatic Laments Elegies and Lullabies, ADDA 581033 CD. Consort items and songs, Alain Zaepffel and others.