Friday, September 25, 2015

Anne Boleyn's Songbook

Music, secular and religious, was an essential element at Henry VIII's Court--the king enjoyed music and dancing and evidently wrote music himself. He valued musical talent and dancing ability in his courtiers and ladies. Anne Boleyn shared Henry's musical taste, and Alamire, a British ensemble of consort singers, has recorded her favorite works:

Anne Boleyn is famously the the most notorious of Henry VIII’s six wives. She was brought up in France and for a time was under the guardianship of Margaret of Austria, who was patron some of the most famous composers in all of Europe. It is here where the young Anne developed her keen musical tastes, and when a collection of her favourite works began to be assembled into what is now known as the Anne Boleyn Songbook (Royal College of Music, MS 1070). The book probably remained in her possession until her execution in 1536, when she was wrongfully accused by Henry’s council of adultery with no less than five men (one being her brother, George). Another of the accused was Mark Smeaton, her music tutor and lutenist, who may have had a hand in including some of the love songs in the book.

Here Alamire explores motets and chansons by the greatest composers of the early 16th century, including Compere, Mouton, Brumel, and Josquin. Performances by Alamire are interspersed with French chansons and instrumental items for lute and harp from the songbook. Also included in the programme is a haunting setting of ‘O death rock me asleep’, the text of which is thought by some to have been written by Anne while awaiting her fate in the Tower of London.

Alamire posted a video promoting the project and the music critic of The Telegraph, Ivan Hewett, discusses the songbook's provenance--it seems to date before she became the Countess of Pembroke or Queen of England:

In 1536, Anne Boleyn, queen of England for only three years, is in the Tower of London awaiting execution on charges of adultery. She writes a letter to Henry VIII, protesting her innocence, and composes a doleful poem: “O Deathe rock me asleep / Bringe me to quiet rest / Let pass my weary guiltless ghost... For I must dye, there is no remedy.” Someone then turns those words into a song, which has survived for five centuries.

There’s no evidence the poem really is by Anne. But it’s touching to think we have a song by a queen lamenting her own demise, and it might even be true. Anne was an educated woman, well able to compose a poem, and she was musically literate too. The proof of that is a leather-bound volume on the shelves of the Royal College of Music, known as Anne Boleyn’s Songbook. It’s a fascinating collection of 42 compositions, which is one of the most important sources of French Renaissance music anywhere. Remarkably, it’s lain untouched for nearly 500 years. Now David Skinner, director of the choir Alamire, has picked out around 20 of the best pieces and recorded them. . . .

The most obvious clue to the book’s ownership is an inscription in tiny writing which states “Mistres ABolleyne nowe thus.” “Nowe thus” was the motto of the Boleyn family, and the word “mistress” is a sign that the book was put together before Anne became queen in 1533. This suggests that the Songbook is the musical equivalent of a commonplace book, which Anne started after she was sent to Europe in her early teens, to complete her education. After a year at the court of Margaret of Austria, who was a great patroness of composers, she spent many years at the French court. The book could well be a record of the music Anne encountered on her travels, and later in England.

This is the poem ascribed to Anne Boleyn in the Tower of London:

O death! rock me on sleep, 
Bring me on quiet rest; 
Yet pass my guiltless ghost 
Out of my careful breast: 
Toll on the passing bell, 
Ring out the doleful knell, 
Let the sound of my death tell, 
For I must die, 
There is no remedy, 
For now I die. 

My pains who can express? 
Alas! they are so strong, 
My dolor will not suffer strength 
My life for to prolong: 
Toll on the passing bell, etc. 

Alone, in prison strong, 
I wail my destiny, 
Woe worth this cruel hap that I 
Should taste this misery: 
Toll on the passing bell, etc. 

Farewell my pleasures past, 
Welcome my present pain; 
I feel my torments so increase 
That life cannot remain. 
Cease now the passing bell, 
Rung is my doleful knell, 
For the sound my death doth tell, 
Death doth draw nigh, 
Sound my end dolefully, 
For now I die.

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