A precious link with the musical legacy of King Henry VIII
Henry VIII was a man of many parts: ruler, statesman, patron, worshipper. The Royal Choirbook is a tribute to Henry as a lover of music: the youthful monarch whose every coming and going was heralded by fanfares, minstrels, lutenists and choirs. It is unparalleled as a musical, literary and artistic celebration of Henry and the Tudor dynasty. In addition to this, the Choirbook has a deep personal significance, testifying to Henry’s abiding hope and faith in the continuation of his line. Now the Choirbook is reproduced in its full glory, within a beautiful binding blocked in gold with a design based on a detail of the frontispiece.
Of all the courtly arts practised by King Henry VIII, music was undoubtedly his greatest passion. As well as being a talented harpist and composer, Henry was one of the greatest patrons of the musical arts in Europe, and his reign heralded a golden age in English choral music. Henry employed 58 full-time court musicians, more than any other monarch before or since, including a chapel choir that was said to be ‘more divine than human’. Many of today’s great English musical institutions such as the choirs of Christ Church, Oxford and King’s College, Cambridge were founded during his reign.
The Royal Choirbook was commissioned and designed by Petrus de Opitiis, an Italian merchant, and his son Benedictus, a talented organist who hoped to gain a position at court. Together they created a magnificent large-format volume of six motets or choral pieces. Composed by Benedictus and a musician named Sampson, these motets were written to appeal to the king on the deepest possible level, reflecting both his royal status and his dearest wish: the birth of a male heir.
On 18 February 1516, Queen Catherine gave birth to a daughter, Mary. The king was disappointed, but still hopeful of a male heir, remarking to the Venetian ambassador, ‘We are both young: if it was a daughter this time, by the grace of God the sons will follow.’ Three months later, Henry’s sister Margaret, Queen of Scots, paid a ceremonial visit to England, her first in over a decade. Their royal reunion was a further reminder of the importance of the dynasty. Written in 1516, the Royal Choirbook is thought to commemorate this reunion, as well as being a prayer for the perpetuation of Henry’s line.
A musical text rich in personal symbolism
‘Let me congratulate you on [Music for King Henry] which appealingly combines different angles and traditional media. The result is both usable and beautiful.’
The Choirbook opens with a sumptuous frontispiece, rich in symbolism carefully chosen to celebrate Henry’s lineage. It depicts a rose bush with three large blooms. One is the red rose of Lancaster, while the red-and-white rose depicts the union of the houses of York and Lancaster. The crowned rose represents King Henry himself. A pomegranate tree, shown blooming in the garden of England, is the symbol of Catherine of Aragon, while a daisy and a marigold represent Henry’s two sisters, Mary and Margaret. As well as being a breathtaking piece of heraldic art, the
frontispiece ingeniously incorporates the texts of the first two motets, Salve radix and Psallite felices, with Henry’s name highlighted in gold leaf.
Rather than using sacred texts, the two opening motets refer specifically to King Henry. Salve radix, the ‘Rose canon’, is a song of praise to the root and flower of the Tudor dynasty – ‘a scarlet rose, where peace and justice stand enclosed’ – written in a distinctive circular form. Psallite felices also praises the king: ‘Sing, fortunate ones, protected by the crown of the scarlet rose, which God himself gave from heaven to the English.’ Two hymns to the Virgin Mary, Sub tuum presidium and Hec est preclarum, praise the mother of God and request her intercession.
The motets conclude with Psalm 128, Beati omnes: ‘Your wife will be like a fruitful vine ...your sons will be like olive shoots around your table ... And may you see your children’s children.’
Together these hymns convey prayers for a male heir that Henry would have taken devoutly to heart.
A new edition of the score in modern musical notation
The facsimile is accompanied by a comprehensive commentary volume by Nicolas Bell, Curator of Music Manuscripts at the British Library. This beautifully illustrated book tells the full story of the creation of the Choirbook, and explains the historical context and symbolism of its texts, images and music. Incorporated within the commentary is a new transcription of all six motets in modern musical notation by Dr David Skinner, Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. On the cover of the commentary is a portrait of Henry VIII, dating from about 1509, the year of his accession. It is the earliest known oil painting of the king, and appeared in the British Library’s exhibition, ‘Henry VIII: Man and Monarch’.
The first recording from King Henry's Choirbook
To commemorate the quincentenary of Henry’s accession, the music in the Choirbook has been recorded for the first time by early music consort Alamire under the directorship of David Skinner.
The CD of this historic recording, which also includes music composed by Henry himself and other music written for him, is included free with this facsimile edition.
O Christe Jesu, pastor bone (Taverner) | King's Pavan (Anonymous) | England be glad (Anonymous) | Consort XII (Henry VIII) | Madame d'amours (Henry VIII) | Tandernaken (Henry VIII) | Salve radix (Sampson?) | Psallite felices (Sampson) | Sub tuum presidium (de Optitiis) | Quam pulcra est (Sampson) | Hec est preclarum (Anonymous) | Beati omnes (Jacotin) | Consort XIII (Henry VIII) | O my heart (Henry VIII) | Helas Madame (Henry VIII) | Though some saith (Henry VIII) | Nil majus superi vident (Verdelot?) | Consort VIII (Henry VIII) | Adieu Madame (Henry VIII) | En vray amoure (Henry VIII) | Lauda vivi alpha et oo (Fayrfax)