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Henry's Music: Motets from a Royal Choirbook / Songs by Henry VIII

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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

On 24 June 1509 Henry Tudor was crowned the eighth English king of that name. His early reign was seen by all as a new Golden Age, full of opulence, spendour, majesty and harmony. Thomas More wrote the above lines as part of an extended poem celebrating the King s accession, ignorant of the knowledge that Henry s Reformation of the 1530s and 40s was to fundamentally change the religious landscape of England forever and claim More s own life. While Henry s reputation is today largely that of the tyrant, in the first 20 years of his reign he was perhaps one of the greatest royal patrons of the musical arts in all of Europe. Here we explore the other Henry: the musician, scholar, and happy prince.

Henry, of course, was not originally destined to be king. As the second son of Henry VII he was raised in the manner of any European prince and received a sound education, with original hopes, it seems, for high places in the Church. Henry excelled at languages, literature, theology, sport and, most famously, music. It was the untimely death in 1502 of his older brother Arthur that thrust the young Duke of York into the limelight. When Henry VIII came to the throne just before his 18th birthday, he was a very different character to that most famously produced by Hans Holbein on the cover of this CD: before the iconic image of the obese and fearsome dictator came a youthful, tall, strikingly handsome and benevolent prince. The court during his early years on the throne must have abounded with cultural activity. Indeed, the number of full-time musicians employed in his household increased from around a half dozen to no less than 58. He also kept his own private household chapel choir in addition to his Chapel Royal, containing the finest musicians in the land, which was a regular and important part of his retinue. Later in life he would go on to found or re-found a number of England s greatest musical institutions that still exist today, including Christ Church, Oxford, and Trinity College, Cambridge, as well as finishing King s College Chapel, that grand project started in 1441 by the teenage Henry VI.

There is much, therefore, to offer in a single recording of Henry s Music. The chosen works may be divided into two broad categories: music written for Henry and by Henry. Sub-categories might also include church and chamber music, vocal and instrumental, but the main point to demonstrate is the wealth of creativity that flowered in this time and the sheer beauty and emotional impact of the music itself.

This recording, produced in conjunction with the various Henry at 500 celebrations held in 2009, contains music written for Henry and by Henry. Voices and instruments combine to offer a fitting tribute to England s most musical king.

'Henry's Music' includes a world premiere recording of the contents of MS Royal 11.e.xi (a royal choirbook gifted to King Henry in 1516), and tribute motets by Robert Fayrfax, Philippe Verdelot, and John Taverner.

About the Artist

Alamire is made up of some of the finest consort singers in the UK and exist in order to explore and promote the compositional processes behind the great masterworks, and lesser-known works, of the late medieval and early modern periods.

David Skinner is known primarily for his combined role as a researcher and performer of early music, and is Fellow and Director of Music at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.

Andrew Lawrence-King is recognized as one of Europe's leading early music artists, and is currently leader of The Harp Consort.

Formed in 1993, members of QuintEssential have performed with some of the leading British period instrument groups, while QuintEssential has collaborated with vocal ensembles such as the Oxford Camerata, Concertare, the Choir of the Brompton Oratory and the Choir of the Chapel Royal at the Tower of London.

Review

Henry's Music from the ever enterprising Obsidian label is a nicely produced, generous, and musically exciting CD in honor of yet another anniversary for 2009. Though not strictly a musical one... the English King Henry VIII acceded to the throne in 1509. The CD acknowledges a number of celebrations taking place in the UK this year; they include an exhibition at the British Library and a clutch of television series and publications. Henry's Music is not a messy and commercialized attempt to cash in on these events, though: there is real substance to this set of performances. For a variety of reasons, lovers of Renaissance music would do well to look at Henry's Music seriously.

For example, tracks 7 to 12 are world premiere recordings of six motets from the Royal 11.e.xi manuscript. This was a choirbook given to Henry and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in 1518 by a now unknown donor - possibly Petrus Alamire, a German-Dutch copyist who lived from c.1470 to 1536 and after whom the ensemble performing here under Tudor music specialist, David Skinner, is named.

As well as four anonymous pieces, other composers represented on Henry's Music include contemporaries, Taverner, Fayrfax and Verdelot (probably). And of course Henry himself: nine of his songs and consorts are interspersed throughout the rest of the CD. An implicit aim of the performances is to point up the happier side of Henry's reign. For those first 20 years or so, before the complex events of the break with Rome and implementation of what is now seen as a tyrannical imposition of religious change, the king was an active patron of the arts, an accomplished theologian and competent writer with a gift for languages. Indeed, his early reign represented something of a renaissance itself: the number of court musicians increased almost tenfold and Henry founded or re-founded a number of prominent musical institutions which still flourish.

So the 20 or so items here presented are to be viewed as upbeat and positive celebrations of music in Britain just before the even lusher flowering during Elizabeth's reign. Not that the singers and musicians (notably Andrew Lawrence-King, whose medieval harp graces several of these pieces) are trying to create an atmosphere or "concept". Each piece stands as precious and moving music in its own right: listen to the infinitely beautiful gem, "Nil majus superi vident" [tr.17], probably by Philippe Verdelot, of whose music the excellent Madrigals for a Tudor King (Obsidian 703) consisted. It has pathos, pain and a kind of survival to it that make you wish it would not end.

Similarly such songs as Henry's "Adieu madame" [tr.19] have a sensitivity and intimacy which invite close and repeated examination. Thanks to the gentle and informed playing evenly evident throughout this CD, the music breathes and gives up its strengths readily and without spectacle or puff. Robert Fayrfax's substantial "Lauda vivi alpha et oo" (for Omega) [tr.21] has the same serenity about it as pervades this CD as a whole. The secular pieces (especially by Henry) are not rough or twangy folk derivatives but polished artworks with substantial precedents and successor traditions.

Not that the musicianship of Alamire, Quintessential, or Lawrence-King and Skinner lacks life, bite or insight in any way. Quite the opposite. Their measured and dignified style is wholly in touch with such an approach, which values introspection over spectacle. Their style is tempered yet enthusiastic, careful yet invigorating. The pace of contrasts on the CD - including the grouping of the new motets - adds positively to the CD's impact. True, most of the tempi are sedate. But this is in support of the aura of opulence that obtained during this part of the sixteenth century in Britain; it makes for a very satisfying listening experience. Such a confidence also conveys the conviction that the composers active during these years knew what they were doing, were neither amateurs nor neophytes; and sensed that they were in the midst of something culturally very significant. Perhaps not Henry himself; but those who attended him did more than echo his aspirations to grandeur. They could hold their own with any composer in Europe.

Produced in the appropriately resonant acoustic of Magdalen Chapel, Oxford, and with texts in original and translated languages as well as a helpful background essay, this is a pleasing and happy collection of music with the bonus of the previously unavailable items. Recommended. -- Classical Net, Mark Sealey, May 2009

ALAMIRE/DAVID SKINNER Henry's Music & Thomas Tomkins (Obsidian): With slightly different combinations of singers and instrumentalists, David Skinner has collected two fascinating surveys of significant moments in English music history. The first CD celebrates Henry VIII's influential musical patronage during the first two decades of his reign (June 24 marks the 500th anniversary of his accession to the throne). There are six songs by Henry himself and 15 motets from a Royal Choirbook, all impeccably sung. The instrumental tracks sound slightly fuller than the sung ones in Thomas Tomkins, a collection of pieces by a composer who, along with his peers, was silenced by the Protestant Revolution 140 years later. This gorgeously polyphonic writing is a treat all the way through -- TheStar.com, John Terauds, May 5, 2009

Both discs were recorded last year in time for the observance of the quincentenary of the coronation of Henry VIII. The Carus disc spans the reigns of Henry and Elizabeth, concluding with Byrd's lament for Tallis that gives the disc its title. The Obsidian program is more narrowly focused on Henry, but the two discs share four of his works in common. Carus has 29 brief selections, while the 21 tracks on the other disc include two longer works.

The Obsidian disc completes the group of five issues, the rest reviewed last month, demonstrating the superb qualities that Skinner has realized with his new ensemble on his new label. Henry VIII is represented by nine works (including the four duplications mentioned), but omitting the oft-recorded Pastime with good company . The longest work is Fayrfax's Lauda vivi alpha et oo , first recorded in Andrew Carwood's extensive survey of the composer (23:2), in which Skinner was his musicological partner. It is a remarkably florid votive antiphon to the Blessed Virgin, one that makes the famous Ave Dei patris filia appear to be a model of restraint. It is the subject of a delightful anecdote about two singers at St. George's chapel, though the theological terms disputed by the singers ( redemptrix and salvatrix ) were later replaced, as in both recorded versions, by the less controversial terms intercessor and helper. The anecdote ends with the two singing furiously at each other, "whereat was good laughing in sleeves of some." Another work almost as long, Sampson's Psallite felices , is one of six motets from a royal choirbook that is recorded in its entirety here for the first time. It was a gift for Henry and Catherine about 1518, though the precise origin of the manuscript is not clear. This royal choirbook (London, BL, MS Roy. 11.e.xi) has apparently been overlooked until now, a facsimile edition having just been edited by Nicolas Bell this year. It raises numerous questions, such as the identity of Sampson, identified as German, whose works appear in Continental printed sources. One motet in honor of the king is by Verdelot, taken from the same source (his 30 motets and 30 madrigals) that furnished the 30 madrigals recorded by the same ensemble (33:1).

The Carus disc features a singer whose first solo disc (33:1) prompted me to look for more. As before, he is the guest vocalist with an instrumental ensemble, given nine solo turns, including the familiar Byrd lament. He has a remarkably smooth and flexible voice, one that will certainly win attention soon. There is only one brief instrumental piece by Henry VIII that is not duplicated on the other disc. The rest of the selections are obscure, so unless you want a lot of recorder ensemble music, Vitzthum's contributions will be the most attractive part of this program. -- Fanfare, J. F. Weber, December 2009

June 24 marks the 500th anniversary of Henry Tudor's coronation, the eighth English king of that name. This collection on the new early music label Obsidian contains music written by and for Henry VIII and includes the world-premiere recording of six motets that comprise the complete music of a special Royal Choirbook gifted to the king around 1518, a much-studied volume.

Listening to the mix of vocal and instrumental offerings, superbly performed by Alamire consort singers and QuintEssential ensemble of sackbuts and cornets plus the gothic harp of Andrew Lawrence King, one comes away with a much gentler, refined view of Henry than the rather tyrannical one so often portrayed. The young Henry was extremely cultured and adept on a variety of instruments as well as being a fine singer. Later he employed up to 58 full-time musicians in his court.

Most arresting are those moments in the choral motets that break into praise for Henry specifically, welded onto the sacred material as if commingling with it. Henry's own music is variable but certainly comfortable in period style. Most ambitious is a striking 16-minute work by Robert Fayrfax that covers many vistas. As often with early music, this is an acquired taste, but for those sympathetic, an absorbing listen. -- Winnipeg Free Press, James Manishen, May 30, 2009

The British choral ensemble Alamire can always be relied upon to produce sonically vibrant, vocally well-matched and balanced, and interpretively authoritative performances, and that's what you'll find in this thoroughly interesting program of motets, songs and instrumental pieces from the time of Henry VIII. In fact, many of the selections are attributed to the king himself, nine songs and instrumental pieces being drawn from the so-called "Henry VIII Manuscript" that resides in the British Library.

The instrumental works are performed by harp or by the ensemble QuintEssential, which consists of cornett, shawm, sackbut and percussion; the solo songs are sensitively, beautifully sung by mezzo Clare Wilkinson, whose timbre here is remarkably like a countertenor's. Highlights include Sampson's Salve radix and Quam pulcra est (those cross-relations!); Jacotin's Beati omnes (sung by the lower voices), with its wonderfully flowing, interwoven lines and thrillingly resonant harmonies; and the opening O Christe Jesu, pastor bone by John Taverner, a perfectly written little gem that should be in every serious choir's repertoire. I can't overemphasize how much of the success of this recording is due to Alamire's impeccably balanced, full-bodied, well-tuned sound, so expertly recorded in three different venues -- and to the scholarship and clearly inspired direction of David Skinner. -- Listen: Life with Classical Music, David Vernier, October 2009

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Product Details

  • Performer: Andrew Lawrence-King
  • Orchestra: Alamire, Quintessential
  • Conductor: David Skinner
  • Composer: Henry VIII, John Taverner, Robert Fayrfax
  • Audio CD (May 1, 2009)
  • Number of Discs: 1
  • Label: Obsidian
  • ASIN: B001TAAMMQ
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #366,892 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)

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By Sid Nuncius TOP 500 REVIEWER on August 17, 2014
Format: Audio CD
This is an excellent disc of music by and for Henry VIII. Its centrepiece is six motets, the contents of a royal choirbook given to Henry by Catherine of Aragon around 1516. These are framed by pieces written by Henry himself and others written for him by composers including Taverner, Verdelot and Fayrfax (with many by the prolific Anon). None of the pieces here is particularly well-known but they are all very good and together they form a lovely and fascinating programme.

Alamire are a very fine ensemble and they perform superbly here. They are joined in some pieces by the instrumental consort QuintEssential and the brilliant harpist Andrew Lawrence-King, and the combination is terrific. They all perform with immense skill, making light of the technical challenges so that everything sounds natural and is a real pleasure to listen to. David Skinner brings all his formidable scholarship to bear, but lightly so that we get real engagement with the music and texts and every piece has genuine meaning.

Don't hesitate if you have any interest whatever in the music of this period. This is a superb ensemble performing fascinating and enjoyable music. It's beautifully recorded by Obsidian, the presentation is very attractive and the notes by David Skinner are full and extremely interesting. Very warmly recommended.

(I would also strongly recommend Alamire's very fine recording of the complete Cantiones Sacrae of 1575 by Tallis and Byrd Cantiones Sacrae 1575.)
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In an age of change and renewal, the man who was part of the age, attemped anything, Henry VIII tudor, attempted theology, statecraft , music and poetry. He appearently succeded in the former two, and did the best he could in the age of Purcell and the italian masters. The music is not bad for an amateur, certainly worth a hearing...
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Splendid music. What a travesty it was created from such a reprobate mad man.

James
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A terrific CD!
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