Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Absalom and Prince Henry; David and King James

This new recording by The Sixteen and Harry Christophers includes four versions of "When David Heard that Absalom was Slain" by Thomas Weelkes, Robert Ramsey, Michael East, and Thomas Tomkins. The lyrics:

When David heard that Absalom was slain, 
he went up to his chamber over the gate and wept; 
and thus he said: 

O my son, Absalom, my son, my son, Absalom, 
would God I had died for thee! 
O Absalom, Absalom, my son, O my son.

As the liner notes explain:

The verse in slightly modified form proved irresistible to a generation of English composers, yielding over a dozen settings of "When David heard that Absalom was slain". Scholars have conjectured that such an extraordinary proliferation of pieces was triggered by the death in 1612 of Henry Frederick Stuart, Prince of Wales and heir to his father’s kingdoms. While little direct evidence supports their theory, we know that contemporary authors often described James I as David and that a few, one of the king’s counsellors among them, associated his precocious eldest son with Absalom. Prince Henry was certainly critical of his austere father’s reign and, for a time before his premature death, displayed impressive leadership skills. The many poems and mourning songs written in Henry’s memory, including works by Sir Walter Ralegh, John Donne and Thomas Campion, contain more favourable biblical references to the prince, comparing him, for example, to Abner, the mighty cousin of Saul and eventual ally of David. And yet it is possible that 2 Samuel 18:33, with its unequivocal expression of grief, offered composers a strong rhetorical device to carry their reflections on Henry’s death.

The choral group Gallicantus released a CD of  many other compositions written upon Prince Henry's death:

In 1612, Prince Henry Frederick, son of James I and heir to the thrones of England and Scotland, died from a suspected bout of typhoid fever. His untimely death inspired a massive outpouring of artistic tributes in both verse and music, reflecting the mood of a nation mourning the loss of this popular future king at just 18 years of age. 

Prince Henry was James I's heir, but there was a rivalry between father and son. One reason for Prince Henry's popularity was that he was absolutely Protestant--he would not consider marriage to a Catholic princess; his court at St. James was more chivalrous, highly cultured, and the prince insisted on clean language and attendance at chapel services. The English people had high hopes of King Henry IX as he would reign upon his father's death, but Henry Frederick, the Prince of Wales died of typhoid fever on November 6, 1612. His younger brother Charles, took his place in the line of succession, but his uncertain health led to concerns that the Stuart Dynasty was in danger:

The unexpected death at the age of eighteen of the heir to the thrones of England and Scotland was a major blow to the Stuart dynasty, just as the equally sudden death of the fifteen year old Arthur, Prince of Wales in April 1502 had been to the first of the Tudors, Henry VII. James’s dynastic hopes now rested on the shoulders of a single surviving son, Charles, Duke of York, just as Henry VII’s focus had necessarily shifted to Arthur’s only brother. However, whereas the future Henry VIII had been a robust young man, Charles was a physically poor specimen: his legs and ankles were so weak that as an infant he preferred to crawl, and as a child he had been required to wear specially made reinforced iron boots. His condition was almost certainly hereditary, since his father had not learned to walk until he was five. Many contemporaries clearly expected that Charles, who was not quite eleven when his brother died, would not survive to reach manhood let alone marry and produce heirs of his own. . . .

In the wake of Henry’s death, the Stuart dynasty was faced with the frightening prospect of imminent extinction in the immediate male line. Were James and Charles to die within the next few years, the thrones of England and Scotland would pass to James’s sole surviving daughter Elizabeth, whose marriage at the age of sixteen in February 1613 to the Elector Palatine Frederick V raised the prospect of a foreign succession. . . .

Extinction in the immediate male line was not the only possibility which confronted James in the aftermath of the death of Prince Henry. There was also the possibility that James, who did not enjoy the best of health, would die while Charles was still a minor, necessitating the formation of a regency government.

Alternative history speculations include the conjecture that King Henry IX would have dealt more effectively with Parliament and thus averted the English Civil War.

No comments:

Post a Comment