Anne Boleyn’s Songbook
Alamire, David Skinner
St Martin-in-the-Fields, 17 February 2023
This was a welcome return of Alamire’s ‘Anne Boleyn’s Songbook’, following their 2015 recording and Wannamaker Playhouse performance. The songbook is a manuscript in the Royal College of Music that seems to have belonged to Anne Boleyn. It includes the inscription ‘Mistres ABolleyne nowe this’ the ‘Mistres’ suggesting that the songbook was started before she became Queen in 1533. ‘Nowe thus’ is her father’s motto.
This programme combines pieces from the Songbook with readings from what I assume were the published love letters between Anne and Henry VIII which somehow or other ended up in the Vatican Library.
The Songbook seems to have been started during Anne’s time at the court of Margaret of Austria in Mechelin where she was Governor of the Hapsburg Netherlands, and when she was later in the household of the Queen of France. It includes music by Compère, Brumel, Mouton, Josquin, and others, all Franco-Flemish composers whose music Anne would have been familiar with during those times. The setting for this performance sets the music in the context of Anne’s short but dramatically doomed relationship with Henry VIII.
The spoken roles of Anne and Henry were taken by Jasmine Blackborow and Matthew Needham. At the start, Henry is clearly smitten with Anne, and writes of the pain of her absence, offering her the dubious distinction of being his ‘only’ mistress. She responds with her “everything will be good for those who wait” comment, as reflected in Claudin de Sermisy’s Jouyssance vous donneray which includes the same line. It opens with the words “Love’s climax will I give to you . . . and I will lead you to the target of your deep desire”. One such target seems to have been Anne’s ‘pritty duckys’ which Henry yearned to kiss.
The tragic change in Henry’s attitude towards Anne moved from ‘pritty duckys’ to a litany of excuses as to why she must die – it apparently being God’s will for Henry to have sons. Anne’s plaintive last missives, written from her prison in the Tower of London a few days before her execution, included a plea for an open trial and the warning that true judgement would eventually come to them both.
A touching reference to Anne’s troubles came with the anonymous Venes regrets, venes tous and the concluding song (not from the songbook) ‘O Deathe rock me asleep’. This had the feel of a litany, with a descending 3-note motif and the sad refrain ‘For I must die; There is no remedye’. The excellent soloist in these, and several other pieces, was mezzo Martha McLorinan.
Lutenist Jacob Heringman was joined by Kirsty Whatley playing Renaissance harp for well-judged accompaniments and some solo pieces. It is worth noting that the lutenist Mark Smeaton was one of several men executed on trumped-up charges of adultery with Anne. The Alamire singers were on brilliant form, their sense of consort being impeccable;
The encore was the entirely appropriate ‘O Lord make thy servant Elizabeth our Queen’ (with its impressive Amen), a piece written by William Byrd (whose 400th anniversary is in a few months time) in honour of Anne Boleyn’s daughter.