Old Music Monday: The Spy’s Choirbook from Alamire

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of going to Sidney Sussex College, in Cambridge, and interviewing Dr. David Skinner, the choral director there, and a brilliant musicologist.  In addition to being incredibly charming, he is also bursting with information which he relays in an approachable way.  I taped our conversation for a podcast, which I’m releasing this week.

spy's choirbookWe talked a lot about The Spy’s Choirbook, the CD that they released last year.  It is full of music from one of the most beautiful manuscripts given to Henry VIII, available now in the British Library.  And it was a gift from a spy – indeed, a possible double agent.

Petrus Alamire ran a workshop in Antwerp where he turned out some of the best quality musical manuscripts.  He was also a musician and composer himself, and in 1515 he gifted to Henry a beautiful illuminated manuscript containing some of the best sacred music of the time, from Josquin and Pierre de la Rue among others.  The gift was created especially for Henry with imagery he would have appreciated such as the red and white Tudor rose (combining the red and white roses of the houses of Lancaster and York respectively).   It was full of music that the young, talented, pre-tyrant Henry would have appreciated.

Petrus Alamire did some other work for Henry, though.  He offered to spy for him on Richard de la Pole, the last living Plantagenet.  This was during a time when the Wars of the Roses was still fresh in everyone’s minds, that half-century during which time the nobility of England managed to kill each other so effectively that a little known family from Wales called the Tudors, with illegitimacy on one side, and the scandalous marriage of a Queen to a Squire on the other, managed to be the best ones left to make a claim for the throne.  When Henry VIII took the throne in 1509 upon his father’s death, the transition to power was the first in over 50 years that didn’t involve bloodshed.

Richard de la Pole was a nephew to the Yorkist kings Edward IV and Richard III.  He lived in exile in France after it became clear that he was not welcome in England thanks to the execution of much of his family, and after 1514 he decided to make a serious bid for the throne with support from both the Yorkists who were still hanging on to their cause after almost 30 years of Tudor rule, and France, who was always ready to stir up trouble in England.  He managed to get to St. Malo with 12,000 mercenaries before England and France declared peace with each other, and the invasion was called off.

It was into this murky realm that Alamire waded.  It was a common role for musicians and other learned men.  They had a built in excuse to travel to foreign courts, and because they spoke multiple languages they could easily integrate into court life and figure out where loyalties were lying.

Petrus Alamire wound up falling out of the king’s good graces when it was suspected that he was actually more of a Yorkist at heart, and supported de la Pole.  Henry never paid him for the luxurious manuscript, but he was lucky that he didn’t wind up in the Tower.  He sent a letter to Cardinal Wolsey in 1517 trying to justify himself, but it didn’t work.  He never came back to England, but his manuscript stayed, and was finally recorded in 2014, and Henry’s choirbook was heard for the first time in England in nearly 500 years.

The music is exquisite.  Listen to it on my Spotify playlist of English renaissance music, or better yet, buy the CD so you can get the great liner notes.

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