Henry VIII is the most instantly recognisable of English kings: the heavy, square face with its fringe of beard, the massive torso, arms akimbo, feet planted firmly on the ground. His character, too, is familiar: ‘Bluff King Hal’, gorging himself at the table, flagrantly promiscuous, cynically manipulating the Church to suit his marital aims, the very archetype of chauvinism.
But scholarship reveals a very different Henry. Larger than life, certainly (six feet two inches tall, a colossal height for the time); but, as a young man, clean-shaven and with a halo of red hair, his waist was a mere 35 inches and his chest 42 inches. His table manners were refined to the point of being finicky, and the conduct of his sexual liaisons was (according to the French ambassador) almost excessively discreet.
An irresistible figure to the twentieth century early–music revival, Henry is shown by numerous hyperbolic contemporary accounts to have been an expert singer (with a clear tenor voice and able to sing at sight); a player of lute, flute, recorder, cornett and virginals; and a composer of sacred and secular music. Inventories made at the time of his death show him as an avid collector of instruments (including recorders, flutes, cornetts, viols and bagpipes). And two musical sources, one sacred (The Eton Choirbook), the other secular (The Henry VIII Ms), proved rich in music as dramatic, colourful and exotic as the king himself.
But there is more to Henry’s music than ‘Pastime with Good Company’ and the splendours of Eton’s polyphony. Henry inherited a modest musical establishment from his father, but bequeathed a large ‘Kynge’s Musicke’ to his heirs.
Henry’s queens were no mere observers of the development of music at his court. Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn both owned song–books which show a strong Franco–Flemish presence in Tudor music; Anne of Cleves augmented her small band of minstrels by borrowing players from Prince Edward’s household; improper relationships with musicians were cited in the cases against both executed queens; Jane Seymour’s royal wedding was celebrated with shawms and sackbuts; and Catherine Parr danced to her own consort of viols. In chapel and chamber, whether dancing, worshipping, singing, playing or listening, music was an important counterpoint to the lives (and sometimes deaths) of all of Henry’s six wives.
★★★★ Jennie Cassidy’s pure mezzo-soprano voice is a joy… A well thought-out and presented project – Classic FM Magazine
Humour, cerebral sophistication and tenderness each find their proper expression in the knitting together of counterpoint and in the delicate rhythmic shading by the players – BBC Music Magazine