We begin our season with a program devoted to music associated primarily with the court and chapel of King Henry VIII. Henry VIII (1491-1547) was King of England from 1509 until his death. During his long and eventful reign, music played a prominent part in life at court. Henry built a large and varied musical establishment that by 1547 included almost 50 full-time instrumentalists as well as the large Chapel Royal. All of this is probably due to the fact that Henry was the younger son of Henry VII, and his older brother Arthur (who died in 1502) was the one intended to be king. Henry, on the other hand, was expected to make a career in the church. Therefore his education included considerable instruction in music. Regardless of his eventual position, Henry demonstrated a life-long affinity for music and some talent as well. He was “much delighted to synge,” and considering his other duties, he did fairly well as a composer. Henry was probably responsible for bringing the first viols to England and maintained a substantial collection of instruments of all kinds. For Henry and his court, music certainly could be enjoyed for its own sake, and was. Particularly in his youth, Henry and the small circle of friends who sported together included singing and playing in their activities.
We have fewer sources of early Tudor music than we would like—a few song books, one of which fortunately contains many instrumental pieces, a couple of manuscripts of sacred vocal music, and some fragments. However the surviving sources do offer us a look into a rich musical culture and provide us with examples of music used in various contexts by courtiers and clerics. The scarcity of sources of early Tudor church music is understandable—after Henry VIII’s break with Rome, the crusading Protestant regents of King Edward VI encouraged the wholesale destruction of things Catholic, including musical manuscripts. One important early 16th-century source that did survive is the large Eton Choirbook manuscript. Unlike the song books of the time, which are physically quite small (Henry VIII’s Manuscript, described below, is no bigger than 12”x 8”), the Eton Choirbook, filled with pieces by many of the composers associated with Henry VII and Henry VIII’s Chapel Royal, is a large volume intended to be placed on a lectern for the whole choir to see.
As in other late medieval courts, the stars of the English musical establishment were the gentlemen of the Chapel Royal. These men were trained in Cathedral school and university and were singers skilled in pricksong, or written music. Of course, in an era in which many at court were not even literate in English, much less musical notation, this alone set the singing men apart. And of course, the great composers of the period came exclusively from their ranks. One of these who was particularly favored by Henry VIII was William Cornysh (1465-1523). Cornysh was appointed Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal in 1509 and held that post until his death. In addition to his secular songs in Henry VIII’s Manuscript, he is represented in the Eton Choirbook. Richard Pygott (c. 1485-1552) was Master of the Children in Thomas Wolsey’s household chapel. The king is reported to have considered Wolsey’s chapel better than his own, and in 1524 he engaged Pygott in his own service. John Taverner (c. 1490-1545) probably did not have any association with Henry’s court. He was, however, invited to become the first instructor of choristers at Cardinal Wolsey’s new foundation, Cardinal College (now Christ College) at Oxford.
Our secular pieces come primarily from three sources: The Fayrfax Manuscript, Ritson Manuscript, and Henry VIII’s Manuscript. The Fayrfax Manuscript in all likelihood represents the musical taste at the court of Henry VII and was written out around 1500. The Ritson Manuscript is another song book containing pieces written out by at least four or five different scribes from the middle of the 15th century to around 1510. Many of Henry VIII’s songs and instrumental pieces survive in the source we call Henry VIII’s Manuscript, a beautiful manuscript written on vellum, with a number of decorated initial letters in blue, red, and gold. It is certainly connected with musical life at court. The king himself is responsible for over 30 pieces in the source; the other named composers are primarily musicians in his Chapel. Unlike The Fayrfax Manuscript, it is a rich and varied collection of continental music, English songs, and instrumental pieces. This book seems to present a picture of plenty of informal music-making at court, but also includes examples of the more important political and ceremonial pieces necessary for the successful conduct of business. In our selections from Henry VIII’s Manuscript, we have included some of our favorite examples of each included genre.