The Consort – Vol. 62, Summer 2006
King Henry VIII’s passion for music was famous across Europe. By 1547 he had assembled a collection of some 380 instruments, including recorders and transverse flutes crumhorns shawms and bagpipes, lutes and viols, organs virginals and clavichords – most of which he could play. He sang well, at sight in clear tenor voice, and composed sacred and secular music. He gathered around him a galaxy of musicians, including cornysh and Fayrfax, Taverner and Tallis, and he bequeathed to us two important collections of music: the secular dances, songs and consort pieces of the Henry VIII Manuscript, and the splendid Eton Choir Book.
But his queens brought music to Henry’s court too. Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn both owned song books which show a preference for Franco-Flemish music. Anne Boleyn played the lute, as did Catherine Howard. Jane Seymour’s wedding was celebrated with shawms and sackbuts; Anne of Cleves augmented her own band of musicians with players from Prince Edward’s household; and Catherine Parr danced to her own consort of viols, brought over from Italy.
This delightful anthology brings together music reflecting many aspects of the lives of Henry and his wives: the collection looks at the musical interests sand associations of Henry’s queens in turn, sharing with us a rich tapestry of music spanning the 38 years of the king’s long reign.
Catherine of Aragon’s entourage included minstrels ho brought with them music form the Spanish court, and the anthology starts with a rousing rendition of La Spagna. This is followed by an imaginative reconstruction from the surviving fragment of Whilles lyve or breth, by Henry’s friend, the composer and courtier William Cornysh, sung on Catherine’s behalf in praise of the king’s prowess in a tournament celebrating the birth of their son Henry in 1511. But the child lived only 10 days, and already the king had fallen under the spell of the raven-haired Anne Boleyn, giving poignancy to Matthieu de Gascogne’s setting of Nigra sum (‘I am black, but beautiful’) from the Old Testament Song of Songs, taken from Catherine’s own song-book.
Anne Boleyn’s brief three years of marriage to Henry are represented by Cornysh’s cheerful hunting song Blow thi horne, and My Lady Carey’s Dumpe, named in honour of Anne’s older sister, Mary, who was Henry’s mistress before her marriage to William Carey. It is played here on the virginals, whose great exponent Mark Smeaton was cited s Anne’s lover at her trial. Anne’s dancing had attracted Henry long before their wedding, and the collection continues with the galliard La Gamba, and its vocal setting, Blame not my lute, by Thomas Wyatt, another courtier with whom Anne had been romantically entwined.
After Anne’s execution, Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour was celebration with a procession up the Thames, with ‘shawms, sackbuts and drumslades playing also in barges…’ – an excuse for Musica Antiqua to fiels a mery battery of shawms and drums, before the exquisite beauty of Madame d’Armours, taken form Henry’s song-book and reflecting the couple’s happiness at the birth of their son Edward – an heir at last for Henry.
But Jane died only a few days after the young prince’s birth, and the king soon announced his intention of taking a new wife. Henry’s fourth marriage to Anne of Cleves – plain and provincial – was doomed form the start. Her isolation and loneliness at the English court are well reflected here in one of the few songs in the Henry VIII manuscript whose words she would have understood, Ein frölich wesen – although its mournful text about travelling unhappily in foreign lands will not have cheered her – and the anonymous Danse de Cleves, here played on the bagpipes, and adding to the rich and variety of colours in this anthology. At least Anne survived her brief marriage to Henry: after her divorce she became known as the king’s ‘sister’.
Catherine Howard, lady in waiting to Anne before becoming Henry’s fifth wife, is represented in this collection by the cheerful strains of Goodly sport, followed by a darker version of the same melody, Adew Madame, to mark her downfall, when she was suspected of taking her teacher of the virginals, one Henry Manox, as a lover, and was executed.
The cultured Catherine Parr became Henry’s sixth wife in July 15743. Her own personal viol consort, with musicians from Milan and Venice, is represented here with a Pavyn named for one of them, Albart. This is followed by the very beautiful Christmas motet, A virgine and a mother and the collection ends with a tranquil viol consort piece, Ashton’s maske.
Henry’s long reign allows Musiqa Antiqua to draw on a wide range of musical styles and traditions, and produce a delightfully varied programme: the seven musicians between them deploy some 28 different instruments with accomplishment and enthusiasm, and with great delicacy in the quieter moments. From the cheerfully boisterous Blow thi horn to the gentle charm of Whilles lyve or breth, there is much to enjoy in this well-researched and wide-ranging collection, with its vision of the pageantry and intrigue of Henry’s court, as well as its more intimate moments.
Among so much excellence it seems invidious to single out one musicians for especial praise, but the programme is built around the musical interests and inclinations of Henry’s six wives and these royal ladies are well served by Jennie Cassidy’s sweet voice, which blends perfectly with the airy textures of lute and viol.
Philip Thorby’s notes are interesting and informative, with the texts of all the vocal music, and translations of the Latin and German songs. But I was startled to read that the group is the first in the world ‘to commission and use late 15th-century viols…’ How exactly? How wonderful to be able to call upon the expertise of musicians and instrument makers of five centuries ago – all our ‘authenticity’ problems will be solved at a stroke!