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Music for Henry VIII & Anne Boleyn

[I] "The Spy's Choirbook - Petrus Alamire & the Court if Henry VIII"
Alamirea; English Cornett & Sackbut Ensembleb
Dir: David Skinner
rec: Feb 4 - 8, 2014, Arundel (West-Sussex), Arundel Castle, Fitzalan Chapel
Obsidian - CD712 (2 CDs) (© 2014) (1.55'10")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Alexander AGRICOLA (c1446-1506): Dulces exuviaea; anon: Alma redemptoris materb; Ave sanctissima Mariaa; Congratulamini mihi omnesb; Dulces exuviaea; Dulcissima virgo Mariaa; Iesus autem transiensb; Maxsimilla Christo amabilisa; Nesciens matera; O beatissime Domine Iesu Christe/Fac me de tua gratia uta; O Domine Iesu Christe/Et sanctissima mater tuaa; O sancta Maria virgo virginumb; Recordamini quomodo praedixit filiumb; Sancta et immaculata virginitasa; Tota pulchra es amica mea/O pulcherrima mulierum/Salvea; Antoine DE FÉVIN (c1470-1511/12): Adiutorium nostrumab; Egregie Christi martir Christophore/Ecce enimab; Sancta trinitas unus Deusab; Johannes GHISELIN (fl 1500): Dulces exuviaea; Heinrich ISAAC (c1445-1517): Anima liquefacta est/Invenerunt me/Filiae Ierusalema; JOSQUIN DESPREZ (c1450-1521): Absalon fili mia (attr; or Pierre de La Rue); Descendi in hortum meuma (attr); Dulces exuviaea; Fama maluma; Missus est Gabriel archangelusa; Tribulatio et angustia invenerunt meab (attr); Jean MOUTON (c1459-1522): Celeste beneficiumab; Dulces exuviaea; Ecce Maria genuit nobisa; Pierre de LA RUE (c1452-1518): Ave regina coeloruma; Doleo super te frater mi Ionathaa; Vexilla regis/Passio Domini nostria; Franciscus STRUS (fl 1500): Sancta Maria succurre miseris/O werder mondtab; Pierrequin DE THERACHE (c1470-1528): Verbum bonum et suavea

[Alamire] Grace Davidson, Kirsty Hopkins, soprano; Ruth Massey, Martha McLorinan, Clare Wilkinson, contralto; Guy Cutting, Benjamin Hymas, Nicholas Todd, Simon Wall, Christopher Watson, tenor; Eamonn Dougan, Greg Skidmore, Timothy Scott Whiteley, baritone; William Gaunt, Robert Macdonald, bass
[ECSE] Gawain Glenton, cornett; Sam Goble, slide trumpet; Emily White, Tom Lees, sackbut; Nicholas Perry, shawm

[II] "Anne Boleyn's Songbook - Music & Passions of a Tudor Queen"
Alamirea; Clare Wilkinson, voiceb; Kirsty Whatley, harpc; Jacob Heringman, luted
Dir: David Skinner
rec: May 26 -28, 2015, Arundel (West-Sussex), Arundel Castle, Fitzalan Chapel
Obsidian - CD715 (2 CDs) (© 2015) (1.34'30")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

anon: Fer pietatis opem miseris matera; Forte si dulci Stigium boantema; Gentilz galans compaignonsbc; Laudate Dominum omnes gentesa; Maria Magdalene et altera Mariaa; O Deathe rock me asleepbd; O virgo virginumcd; Popule meus quid feci tibia; Venes regrets, venes tousbd; Antoine BRUMEL (c1460-1512/13): Que est istaa; Sicut lilium inter spinasa; Loyset COMPÈRE (c1445-1518): Paranymphus salutat virginema; Antoine DE FÉVIN: Tempus meum est ut revertara; JOSQUIN DESPREZ: Liber generationisa; Praeter rerum seriema; Stabat mater dolorosaa; Jean MOUTON: In illo temporea; Tota pulchra esa; Claudin DE SERMISY (c1490-1562): Jouyssance vous donneraybd

Grace Davidson, Kirsty Hopkins, soprano; Carris Jones, Martha McLorinan, Clare Wilkinson, contralto; Ruiari Bowen, Guy Cutting, Steven Harrold, Benjamin Hymas, Nicholas Todd, Simon Wall, tenor; Greg Skidmore, Timothy Scott Whiteley, baritone; Tom Flint, William Gaunt, Robert Macdonald, bass

The two productions which are the subject of this review are closely connected as they both include music from collections which can be related to Henry VIII. He is one of the most famous and infamous of all English monarchs. He was one of the most influential in that he was personally responsible for the creation of the Church of England. Without the split with the Church of Rome we would not have seen a large repertoire of sacred music in the vernacular and England may not have seen the emergence of Protestantism. But that is all speculation. What probably appeals stronger to people's imagination are the causes of the split with Rome: the fact that he wanted to divorce from his first wife as she couldn't give him the male heir he needed. Against the wishes of Rome the archbishop of Canturbury granted him a divorce. This paved the way for Henry to marry Anne Boleyn, the woman the second disc is devoted to. Henry was made Supreme Head of the Church by an Act of Parliament in 1534 which sealed the split with Rome.

The wives of Henry VIII - Anne Boleyn was just the second of six - attract considerably more attention in the public perception than other aspects of his personality, such as his great passion for music. He not only loved music, but he also was active as a player of instruments, in particular the recorder, and as a composer. His interest in music goes beyond what was common at the time: music as a display of power and wealth. Henry owed a particularly large collection of recorders, welcomed the Italian-born Bassano family at his court and had William Cornysh as Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal.

The first disc has an intriguing title: "The Spy's Choirbook". It is about Petrus Alamire, the renowned music scribe from the southern Netherlands. His was of German birth; his real name was Peter Imhoff or Van den Hove. He had many contacts with political leaders across Europe, such as Maximilian, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and Margaret of Austria, governor of the Habsburg Netherlands. As a result he almost inevitably played a certain role in politics. As David Skinner writes in his liner-notes: "Musicians of Alamire's popularity and talent were often widely travelled, frequently visiting the various courts of Europe; such a career was a perfect cover for sensitive political and diplomatic exchanges." There is documentary evidence that Alamire acted as a spy for Henry VIII against Richard de la Pole, duke of Suffolk and last member of the House of York who claimed the English throne. The initiative came from Alamire who informed Henry what his musician friends had found out and sent him a motet, six part-books and some instruments. Somewhat later this was followed by another gift which included a parchment manuscript. That is the subject of the first production.

It is unlikely that the collection was specifically intended for Henry. The first layer of the book includes pieces which invoke the desire for childbearing. Among them are two motets which were originally written for Louis XII of France and Anne of Brittany; the latter was unable to give birth to a male heir and died in January 1514. Later that year Louis married Henry VIII's sister but died three months later himself. In order to present the collection to Henry Alamire changed the dedication but as Henry and his then wife Catharine of Aragon also attempted to produce a male heir he didn't need to change anything in the content except the names in some of the pieces. In Adiutorium nostrum by Antoine de Févin, for instance, the names Anna and Ludovicus are changed to Katharina and Henricus.

The manuscript has been recorded here complete. It includes 34 motets; none of them mentions the name of the composer. In many cases he can be identified from other sources; some of the main composers of the time are represented, such as Jean Mouton, Pierre de La Rue, Josquin Desprez and Alexander Agricola. Nearly a third of the pieces cannot be attributed to any composer. From a historical point of view that is the most interesting part as these motets are a considerable addition to the discography. Some of them have notable features as David Skinner explains in the liner-notes. As far as the performance practice is concerned, the participation of an ensemble of wind instruments is especially interesting. This is not common in recordings of English renaissance polyphony; the role of cornetts and sackbuts in sacred music in the early 16th century is an underrated aspect of performance practice. Some pieces are performed instrumentally, in some others the wind play colla voce.

The praying for a male heir to be born which Alamire laid into the mouths of Henry and Catharine of Aragon through Févin's motet was not answered. This was the main reason that Henry wanted to divorce in order to be able to marry Anne Boleyn. She is the subject of the second project. "After six years of marriage, and the birth of a healthy daughter, Elisabeth, who was to become the greatest Tudor monarch of his issue, Anne was executed on multiple charges of adultery (...). Was she guilty? It all depends on whose viewpoint one reads among today's eminent historians. We will probably never know (...)", David Skinner writes. As a child she was sent to the continent where she served various rulers who are well known for their love of music and patronage of the arts. This means that from early on she must have become acquainted with some of the best music written at the time. It was especially at the court in France that she developed her interest in the arts and in music. The Royal College of Music in London keeps a music book which is thought to have been owned and used by Anne Boleyn, although there is no firm evidence for this. It seems likely that it was put together in France and came to England at some time after 1522 when Anne returned to England.

The collection includes 42 pieces; some of them also appear in the "Spy's Choirbook". Again we find the names of Josquin, Mouton and Févin; moreover it includes pieces by Compère, Brumel and Sermisy. Whereas the "Spy's Choirbook" is entirely devoted to motets - some of them on secular texts from the antiquity - Anne Boleyn's songbook also includes secular pieces which are performed here by a solo voice (Clare Wilkinson) with either lute or harp. The book opens with an anonymous secular motet, Forte si dulci Stigium boantem; the text is a neo-Latin poem which links the story of Lazarus from the New Testament with Olympus and the Greek gods. Especially interesting is Jouyssance vous donneray by Claudin de Sermisy, which is a setting of a text by Clément Marot, a poet Anne must have known personally. She would later offer him refuge from persecution for his religious (protestant) beliefs. It has been suggested that Marot wrote this text with Anne in mind.

The programme ends with an anonymous song which is not in Anne Boleyn's songbook: O Deathe rock me asleep. It has been suggested that the text was from the pen of Anne herself or from people close to her: "O Deathe rock me asleep, bringe me to quiet rest. Let passe my weary guiltless ghost, out of my carefull breast". The first three stanzas end with the refrain "For I must dye; there is no remedye", and the last with the sigh "For now I dye". This has been associated with Anne awaiting her execution. The song dates from late in the Elizabethan era but a keyboard arrangement from around 1560 shows that it must be considerably older. It has been included here to mark the end of Anne Boleyn.

This song receives an incisive performance from Clare Wilkinson who is equally impressive in the other solo pieces. She is effectively supported by Jacob Heringman and Kirsty Whatley who also perform together the anonymous O virgo virginum. It is notable - and worth imitating - that the texts of those items which are performed instrumentally, are included in the booklet. The singing and playing on both discs is excellent: the balance between the various voice groups is ideal and no vibrato damages the ensemble. The French items and O Deathe rock me asleep are sung in historical pronunciation.

These two sets of discs are highly interesting from a historical point of view and musically very rewarding. Lovers of renaissance music shouldn't miss them.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Alamire
English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble


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