Editor’s Choice, Vocal & Choral – November 2015

“Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded survived” – the old schoolroom rhyme is still a good way of recalling the fate of the six colourful women who married Henry VIII. Anne Boleyn, the second wife and the first to get the chop (literally) had quite an interesting life before she came to Henry’s attention. As a maid of honour to Margaret of Austria, a great musical patron, then in the French court of Henry’s sister, Mary and later in that of her stepdaughter, Queen Claude, Anne would have been exposed to a wide variety of musical styles, as well as being given ample opportunity to develop her own musical talents.

All the more intriguing then, is a music book kept in London’s Royal College of Music that bears her name. It contains 42 works, both sacred and secular, by a variety of composers. Some are smaller works destined for domestic or devotional settings, while others are grander, liturgical works.

David Skinner and his vocal consort (named after the Tudor singer, composer, music copyist and political informant, Petrus Alamire) offer a generous sampling of the book’s diverse contents. What is immediately noticeable is the group’s sonorous, rich, even tone which is used to great effect in Josquin’s masterpieces, Praeter Rerum Seriem and Stabat Mater. Mouton’s Tota Pulchra Es also impresses for the same reason. Other composers represented include Compère, Brumel and Antoine de Févin.

Amongst the secular pieces, two have particular connections with Anne Boleyn. The future queen could well have sung Claudin de Sermisy’s chanson, Jouyssance Vous Donneray to her royal suitor at some stage during their protracted courtship: the final line being “everything will be good for those who wait”.

A plangent note is hit at the end of the recording with O Deathe Rock Me Asleep. Although not contained in the songbook, it is commonly thought that Anne sang this lute song awaiting her execution and she may have even authored the text. The grinding false relations under the words “For now I dye” are particularly haunting as sung by Clare Wilkinson and form a sober reminder of the grim political realities of the period.

Sympathetically recorded in Arundel Castle’s Fitzalan Chapel, these performances are another contribution to our understanding of music in the Tudor period. I look forward to hearing what Skinner and his singers do next.

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