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The musical life of King Henry VIII

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Italian in form with an Elizabethan text, this is one piece that must be struck from the list of works by this most musical of monarchs. Though not a requirement of any intended heir to the throne, music for a number of reasons came naturally to Henry and he remained a fanatical musician throughout his reign.

Indeed the break with the Catholic Church and closure of hundreds of monastic and collegiate houses sent a great number of musicians to wretched poverty and composers into confusion. As the second son of Henry VII he was raised in the manner of any European prince and received a sound education, with original hopes, it seems, for high places in the Church. Little is known of his early musical tuition, but it’s likely that he would have benefited from contact with musicians attached to his father’s court, such as William Cornysh and William Newarke. During his early years the court abounded with cultural activity indeed, the number of full-time musicians employed in his household increased from around a half dozen to 58. He also kept his own private household chapel choir in addition to his Chapel Royal, containing the finest musicians in the land, which was a regular part of his retinue.

One famous example is a royal choir book gifted to Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon in around 1516, now in the British Library (the nucleus of which was formed from Henrys own personal library). Earlier still is Robert Fayrfaxs setting of Lauda vivi alpha et oo (Praise, most exalted daughter of the living Alpha and Omega), a devotion to the Virgin Mary with an embedded prayer to the king, probably composed soon after Henry came to the throne in 1509. Typical of the great pre-Reformation votive antiphon in its vast musical architecture, it was to be the great musical art forms such as this, forged from a long tradition, that would be swept away by Henrys reforms.

It is well known that he was a competent player of a variety of keyboard, string, and wind instruments and there is even an image of him playing his harp in the so-called Henry VIII Psalter. The main testament to his compositional skill, however, is the so-called Henry VIII Manuscript, which contains 109 songs and instrumental pieces by composers attached to the court as well as some by foreign musicians. No fewer than 33 of the compositions, nearly a third of the entire collection, are ascribed to the kyng h. viii. One can imagine that he gained advice from composers and musicians attached to his chapel and court, but these early errors seem to show that much of what survives are the kings own.

In celebration of 500 years since Henry came to the throne, perhaps it is time to give his musical side another chance, remembering that without Henrys actions (good or bad) England’s musical heritage would most likely be different to that which we enjoy today.

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