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Music around Henry VIII

[I] "Henry's Music: Motets from a Royal Choirbook, Songs by Henry VIII"
Clare Wilkinson, mezzosopranoa; Andrew Lawrence-King, harpb; Alamirec, Quintessentiald
Dir: David Skinner

rec: April 27, 2006, Oxford, Magdalen College (chapel); May 25 - 26, 2008, Cambridge, Sidney Sussex College; Sept 15 - 17, 2008, Oxford, St Michael's Church, Summertown
Obsidian - CD705 (© 2009) (76'28")

[II] "A Gift for a King: Music for Henry VIII"
Dir: David Skinner

rec: [n.d.], Florence, Monastery San Salvatore al Monte
The Gift of Music - CCL CDG1221 (© 2006) (60'15")

[I] anon: England be gladc; Hec est preclarumc; King's Pavand; Madame d'amoursab; Robert FAYRFAX (1464-1521): Lauda vivi alpha et ooc; HENRY VIII (1491-1547): Adieu madameab; Consort VIIIb; Consort XIIb; Consort XIIIb; En vray amoured; Hélas madamed; O my heartab; Tandernakend; Though some saithab; JACOTIN (1st half 16th C): Beati omnesc; Benedictus DE OPITIIS (c1476-1524): Sub tuum praesidiumc; SAMPSON (?-?): Psallite felicesc; Quam pulcra esc; Salve radix (attr)c; John TAVERNER (c1490-1545): O Christe Jesu, pastor bonec; Philippe VERDELOT (1480/85-before 1552): Nil majus superi vident (attr)c
[II] plainsong: Alma redemptoris mater; Ave regina coelorum; Regina caeli; Salve Regina; Jean LHERITIER (c1480-c1551): O clemens, o pia virgo; Claudin DE SERMISY (c1490-1562): Aspice Domine; Quousque non reverteris pax; Philippe VERDELOT: Ave gratia plena; Congregati sunt; Deus in nomine; Nil majus superi vident (attr); O dulcissime Domine; Sancta Maria; Adrian WILLAERT (1490-1562): Ecce Dominus veniet; Pater noster

[Alamire] Grace Davidson, Julia Doyle, soprano; Ruth Clegg, Clare Wilkinson, mezzosoprano; Mark Dobell, Steven Harrold, William Unwin, Simon Wall, Christopher Watson, tenor; Gregory Skidmore, Timothy Scott Whiteley, baritone; Oliver Hunt, Robert Macdonald, bass
[Quintessential] Richard Thomas, cornett; Nicholas Perry, shawm; Philip Dale, sackbut; Tom Lees, sackbut, percussion

King Henry VIII of England is mostly known for the political and religious turmoils he caused. In connection to this the descriptions of his character are rather unflattery. It is easy to forget that he was a man of culture, although his qualities in this respect have faded into the background in his later years.
Being educated in the arts, including music, wasn't unusual for a royal person as music was part of everyday life. What is less common is Henry's ability to compose music. According to a contemporary he composed even two masses which were regularly performed. The reason could be that Henry wasn't intended to be king; he was educated to serve in the Church. It was only because of the early death of his older brother Arthur that he had to succeed his father on the throne.

In his early years as a king cultural life at his court was gaining in stature. The number of full-time musicians at the court increased from half a dozen to 58. Henry had his private chapel, alongside the Royal Chapel, and later in his life he founded several important institutions which still exist.

Of Henry's own oeuvre only mostly secular songs and instrumental pieces have survived as well as one motet. The attribution of some compositions to Henry cause some doubt; it is quite possible that pieces composed by someone else were attributed to the king in order to give a good account of his abilities. But the pieces which seem to be authentic don't leave any doubt about his skills. On this disc three consorts are played by Andrew Lawrence-King on the harp who also accompanies Clare Wilkinson in songs by Henry as well as some anonymous pieces. Some songs are also performed instrumentally by Quintessential.

The most interesting part of this disc is the series of six motets which are included in a book which is preserved in the British Library. The collection was a gift to Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon from around 1518. But its origin is a mystery, and so are some of the composers of the pieces in this book. Two pieces are by Sampson, and one is attributed to him. In the booklet David Skinner calls him a 'German composer'. But in his article on Sampson in New Grove Roger Bowers states that "the composer whose works arose in this English milieu must be distinguished from a continental contemporary also known only as Sampson (or Samson), several of whose works appeared in German printed collections". So who exactly this Sampson is remains unclear, especially as the English Sampson Bowers refers to was not a professional composer. Two other pieces are again anonymous, but the last item in the book, Beati omnes, is attributed to a certain Jacotin. He is probably the French composer Jacotin Le Bel who was a singer in the royal chapel in Paris in the second quarter of the 16th century, and is mainly known as a composer of chansons. The text is Psalm 127 (128), and David Skinner believes "its inclusion may have been intended, owing to the theme of the 'children's children', as a prayer willing on the perpetuation of the Tudor dynasty".

This is by far not the first disc devoted to music around Henry VIII, but thanks to the choice of repertoire definitely one of the most interesting. The obvious pieces - like Pastyme with good companye - have been avoided, and instead we have quite a number of far lesser-known pieces. In particular the inclusion of the six motets is of the greatest importance, also considering their quality. Alamire is a fine vocal ensemble who sings this repertoire really well. Also very good are the instrumental items, often played by consorts of recorders. That makes a performance with other instruments - either harp or a combination of loud wind instruments - all the more welcome. Lastly, it is quite unfair that Clare Wilkinson isn't mentioned as the singer who performs the songs. It is thanks to the internet that I found out who it is. She sings quite beautifully, with an excellent diction, and the combination of voice and harp is a very happy one.

The company which produces the Obsidian label also brings discs on the market under the name of 'The Gift of Music'. Whereas the Obsidian discs are accompanied by a booklet in which the dates and venues of the recording are mentioned and which includes all lyrics, the leaflet which goes with the 'Gift of Music' disc is very modest. There are programme notes - in a very small print, so keep a magnifying glass close to hand - but no lyrics. And when and where the recording was made is anybody's guess. It would be a shame if the somewhat shabby presentation would withhold music lovers from purchasing this disc, as the repertoire is extremely interesting. Again we have here pieces which were part of a collection of motets and madrigals meant as a gift of the city of Florence to Henry VIII. It dates from around 1526 and the majority of the pieces was written by the French composer Philippe Verdelot who had settled in Venice towards the end of his life. He was probably also the one who compiled the collection. This disc brings the motets from the collection, another is devoted to the madrigals (which is, strangely enough, released on the Obsidian label). As I don't have access to that disc I can't say anything about it.

I had never heard of the ensemble Magdala. In this recording it consists of 26 singers: 7 sopranos, 7 altos, 4 tenors, 4 baritones and 4 basses. This is a pretty large ensemble, although comparable with most all-male cathedral and college choirs, which sing the same kind of repertoire. The booklet doesn't give any indication as to whether all singers are involved in every single work. But the sound is very clear and there is certainly no lack of transparency. I have enjoyed this disc, first because of the first-rate repertoire, but also because of the performance. It had been nice to have the lyrics; without them it is difficult to assess how various elements in the text have been treated.
Anyway, for those interested in music from this period this is definitely a disc worth exploring.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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