Old Music Tuesday: The Musical Court of Henry VIII

Yep, you read that right. The musical court of Henry VIII. While many of us think of the monarch with six wives as fat and pretty darn corpulent, he wasn’t always this way. In fact, when he was young, he was quite the hottie, impressing women with his jousting feats, how good he looked in his armor, and how intelligent and erudite he was.

Anybody who listens to my podcast will already know this, but it’s worth another mention in case you aren’t up on all things Tudor related.

Henry and his wife Catherine had a magical Camelot-like court. Well, that was when they were still happy and before he tried to put her aside to marry Anne Boleyn. But that’s a different story. For now, let’s look at the first 25 years of Henry’s life, when he was still handsome, into music and dance, and before he’d become the anti-Pope fat tyrant we remember.

A composer that was almost an exact contemporary of Henry is John Taverner who was born in 1490, and lived until 1545. He is famous for liturgical music, but also some secular music. The group The Taverner Consort & Players has a new album out featuring his famous Western Wind mass, interspersed with more courtly contemporary music that would have been found at Henry’s court. The whole thing is a time machine back into life in Hampton Court or Richmond, when secular music from the Chapel Royal would have been mixed with lute players strumming their instruments as ladies did needlepoint, and concerts in the evening along with masks and dancing.

I like this album because, unlike many early music recordings that focus on either secular or sacred, this recording mixes both the mass, as well as folk songs, which is much more true to life, I think. We don’t just listen to one type of music, and neither would Henry and his court have been serenaded only with a mass or with the lutes.  It also features music composed by Henry himself. While he was certainly no Thomas Tallis, he was a solid composers, and his music can easily be featured on a disc with other folk songs of the period, and not sound misplaced.

I discovered the recording, as I discover so many of my favorites, through The Millennium of Music which is, without a doubt, the best early music programs around.  Here is a review from Andrew Benson-Wilson which says many more technical things than I could. I just know that I am loving this album.

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From Andrew Benson-Wilson: 

“The CD opens with a solo recorder, playing the 16th century melody of Western wynde before the chanted Kyrie. As was usual in English mass settings of this period, the Kyrie is not set polyphonically. The ebullient opening of Taverner’s Gloria immediately set the two featured soloists alight, with the extended passages for upper voice and tenor, the full choir joining in periodically, to great effect. In complete contrast, the Gloria is followed by the lovely little My lady Careys dompe, played on the harpsichord by Steven Devine with lots of finger-twisting and occasionally rather convoluted additional twiddles. It is as though we are on a tour of one of Henry’s Palaces and are popping our head into various rooms to catch musicians plying their wares. Back in the Chapel, the Credo then bursts in, followed by the distinctive sound of a mute cornet and two sackbuts playing one of Henry’s own ditties.

The western wynde is an extraordinary mass setting, raising more questions than it answers. Its grandeur suggests that it could have been written during his time as organist at master of the music (informator) at Cardinal Wolsey’s new Oxford foundation (now Christ Church College). But internal evidence also suggests a later period, when he entrenched himself safely away from Oxford and London religious politics in Boston, Lincolnshire. This seems to be the first time an English composer based a mass setting on a non-sacred melody, in this case, the entirely secular song whose only reference to “Cryst” is in reference to wishing that his lover was in his arms, and in his bed, blown there by the apparently reluctant western wind. It has an interesting musical construction, with the cantus firmus repeating nine times in each movement, in different voice parts, in effect creating 36 variations on the melody spread over the four mass movements. He manages to make all four sections about the same length by using extended melismas in the otherwise shorter movements.

Between the Sanctus and the low entry of the Agnus Dei, we hear the delightful twang of Kirsty Whatley’s harp in My lady Wynkfylds rownde, from the same royal manuscript as My lady Careys dompe. After the Mass setting, the programme continues with a variety of secular and sacred music from the likes of William Cornysh (the younger), Hugh Aston (his remarkable Hornepype), and Henry VIII himself. Along with smaller instrumental and vocal forces, the full 15-strong choir returns for two other Taverner pieces, his Audivi vocem de caelo and Dum transisset sabbatum, both final responds for Matins. These are separated by the famous, but later, keyboard transcription (here replete with added twiddle) of Taverner’s In nomine from the Benedictus of his Gloria tibi trinitas mass. The eight instrumentalists are amongst the finest around, with notable contributions from the two already mentioned (Steven Devine and Kirsty Whatley), plus Gawain Glenton, mute cornet, William Lyons, shawm, and Uri Smilansky, viol and recorder. Emily Van Evera and Charles Daniels are, of course, outstanding in their vocal contributions.”

 

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