Father of the King's Musick

On the trail of Henry VIII, Lucie Skeaping uncovers the tale of a forgotten manuscript

While we all go handel crazy this year, spare a thought for another anniversary. 500 years ago, 24 June saw the coronation of one of our more musical monarchs, Henry VIII. OK, so he didn’t write Greensleeves (forget what they told you at school – it’s based on an earlier Italian chord sequence and the words are Elizabethan) but his name does appear as composer of 33 of the 109 mostly short and simple songs and instrumental pieces in the so-called Court Songbook.

Rose CanonHenry showed a keen interest in music from an early age. The Venetian ambassador, visiting in 1515, noted how the young king ‘plays well on the lute and harpsichord and sings from a book at sight’. Musical life at court was revered throughout Europe and several manuscripts preserve this legacy. But one stands out in terms of sheer luxury of its production, the artistry of its illumination and the light it sheds on Henry’s musical interests – a collection of motets of the grandest possible conception.

And yet, until now, it has received hardly any scholarly attention. When musicologist David Skinner saw the manuscript last year at the British Library he immediately recognised its quality. With his accomplished group of singers, Alamire, he has now recorded the entire collection – an exciting ‘first’ these days when new early music discoveries are few and far between.

Put together in 1516, Henry’s seventh year as king, the book was almost certainly a gift from the Flemish-Italian composer Benedictus de Opitiis who hoped to get a job in England as court organist. He succeeded – as did no less a figure than the Doge’s organist at San Marco in Venice who joined Henry’s court a few months later. Henry’s enthusiasm for music and for employing some of Europe's top musicians to perform it never waned. He had inherited a modest musical establishment from his father but he was to leave his own heirs a flourishing ‘King’s Musick’.

CD: Henry's Music: Songs & Motets by Henry VIII; Motets from a Royal Choirbook: Sampson, Jacotin, Verdelot
Clare Wilkinson (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Lawrence-King (harp); Alamire; Quintessential/David Skinner
Obsidian CD 705

Audio clip: Henry's Music: Hec est preclarum

Related links:
Songs from a Golden Age

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