Anne Boleyn’s Songbook

Anne Boleyn’s Songbook
Alamire, David Skinner
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 13 Sept 2015

Having recently dusted off ‘The Spy’s Choirbook’, a manuscript by Alamire in the British Library, David Skinner and Alamire have now turned their attention to a manuscript that (arguably) belonged to Anne Boleyn, currently in the Royal College of Music (MS1070). The inscription ‘Mistres ABolleyne nowe this’ indicates the link to Anne, the ‘Mistres’ suggesting that the songbook was started before she became Queen in 1533 – and, I suggest, also before she became Marquess of Pembroke in 1532, and possibly before 1525 when her father was elevated to the peerage as a Viscount, or 1529 when he was created an Earl, both ranks giving Anne a courtesy title. ‘Nowe thus’ is her father’s motto.

David_20150916_154853 Skinner’s informative and user-friendly chats between the pieces of the concert explained his reasoning that this was indeed Anne’s songbook, not least on the basis of the contents of the book. The suggestion is that the book was started in Anne’s youth, during her time at the court of Margaret of Austria (Governor of the Haspburg Netherlands) in Mechelin, or when she was in the household of the Queen of France. Composers such as Compère, Brumel, Mouton and Josquin were all Franco-Flemish composers that Anne would have been familiar with during these times. A second layer of the book has clear references to later incidents in Anne’s complex life, not least to the early relationship between her and Henry VIII. One such example was the song Jouyssance vous donneray with the words ‘I will give you pleasure, my dear … everything will be good for those who wait’ – there is a suggestion that this is a song that Anne herself sang to Henry – who (we were gleefully told) she apparently pleasured “in the French manner” before their marriage.

photo: Stegan Schweiger

For this song, and several others, Clare Wilkinson vocally took on the role of Anne, accompanied by Jacob Heringman taking a risk as the unfortunate lutenist and virginal player Mark Smeaton (one of the men accused of adultery with Anne, and executed) and Kirsty Whatley playing a Gothic-style Renaissance harp. Clare’s solos were one of the highlights of the evening, firstly because of the excellence of her singing, but also because it brought us closer to the person of Anne. The anonymous Venes regrets, venes tous  was a touching reference to Anne’s troubles, as was the concluding song (not from the songbook) ‘O Deathe rock me asleep’. This had the feel of a litany, with the repeated descending 3-note motif and the sad refrain ‘For I must die; There is no remedye’. It was prefaced by a reading (from Kirsty Hopkins) of one of Anne’s last recorded missives; a plea for an open trial, written from her prison in the Tower of London a few days before her execution.

The other works in the songbook were shared between various groupings of the nine singers of Alamire. One of the most interesting was Forte si dulci Stigium boantem, a curious conflation of the story of Lazarus and several Greek myths. The impressive line-up of singers produced a warmly blended tone. It was interesting to note that, in many of the four-part pieces, we had four sopranos, two tenors, one baritone and two basses taking the four lines, all in perfect blend. The encore was the entirely appropriate ‘O Lord make thy servant Elizabeth our Queen … and give her a long life’ (with its wonderful Amen), a piece written by Byrd in honour of Anne Boleyn’s daughter.

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