Anne Boleyn’s Songbook

Anne Boleyn’s Songbook –

Royal College of Music MS 1070

This morning, an article about a recent performance of music from an old book found in the archives of the Royal College of Music caught my eye. This book is known as Anne Boleyn’s Songbook (Royal College of Music MS 1070).

The book contains music that a well-bred young woman in the Renaissance would have liked and enjoyed. It is a collection of musical love songs by Josquin, Mouton, Sermisy and others, some are anonymous. It contains 42 compositions, both secular chansons and sacred texts, and is one of the most important sources of French Renaissance music anywhere.

David Skinner, director of the choir Alamire, has chosen 20 of the songs and has recorded them with the choir. The CD was released in the week prior to a performance at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre in Shakespeare’s Globe in London on 14 September 2015.

The connection of the book to Anne Boleyn comes from an inscription which states “M[ist]ris A Bolleyne nowe thus.” “Nowe thus” was the motto of the Boleyn family. Together with the title “Mistris” and her maiden name “A Bolleyne”, it could indicate that this inscription was written before Anne became Henry VIII’s queen in 1533. This opinion is shared by Urkevich, who suggests that Marguerite d’Alençon gave the book to Anne around 1520, when Anne was to be recalled to her homeland for a proposed marriage (not to Henry VIII).  Lowinsky, however, thinks that it might have been written on the day of her execution.

According to David Skinner a close reading of the manuscript itself traces a narrative through Anne’s early life at the French court and later her courtship with Henry VIII. He argues that Anne

was brought up in France and for a time was under the guardianship of Margaret of Austria, who was patron some of the most famous composers in all of Europe. It is here where the young Anne developed her keen musical tastes, and when a collection of her favourite works began to be assembled into what is now known as the Anne Boleyn Songbook (Royal College of Music, MS 1070). The book probably remained in her possession until her execution in 1536 [Alamire website]

Though it is not part of Royal College of Music MS 1070, the CD also includes the anonymous ‘O Deathe rock me asleep’, which has long been associated with Anne Boleyn. The text tells of a woman incarcerated in the Tower awaiting her execution and some scholars think that it may have been written by Anne herself, while being imprisoned in the Tower.

There is a short promotional video for Anne Boleyn’s Songbook on YouTube, which gives some indication of the beautiful music the CD – and the book – includes.

It is the second part of a planned trilogy by Alamire, the first one was The Spy’s Choirbook. The Spy’s Choirbook is a collection of the French and Franco-Flemish repertory of the time when it was compiled in the scriptorium of Petrus Alamire, from whom the choir takes its name. The book was a gift to Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon in 1516. Alamire’s real name was Peter van den Hoven (c. 1470-1536). He not only made beautifully illuminated books, but was also a musician and composer. He also found the time to work as a spy for Henry VIII, keeping him informed on what Richard de la Pole (son of Richard III’s sister Elizabeth and pretender to the English throne) was up to. An interesting character.

References:

‘Anne Boleyn’s Songbook: Alamire’s next project confirmed’, Alamire. URL: http://www.alamire.co.uk/press/anne-boleyns-songbook-alamires-next-project-confirmed [accessed 16 Sept. 2015]

‘The Spy’s Choirbook’, Alamire. URL: http://www.alamire.co.uk/discography/spys-choirbook [accessed 16 Sept. 2015]

‘The Spy’s Choirbook’, Medieval Manuscripts Blog (4 Oct. 2011). URL: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2011/10/the-spys-choirbook.html [accessed 4 June 2015]

Coghlan, A., ‘Anne Boleyn’s Songbook, Alamire, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse’, The Arts Desk (14 Sept. 2015). URL: http://www.theartsdesk.com/classical-music/anne-boleyns-songbook-alamire-sam-wanamaker-playhouse [accessed 16 Sept. 2015]

Hewett, I., ‘Did Anne Boleyn write this music while awaiting execution?’, The Telegraph (14 Sept. 2015).  URL:  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/music/classical-music/did-anne-boleyn-write-this-song-while-awaiting-execution/ [accessed 16 Sept. 2015]

Lowinsky, E.E., ‘MS 1070 of the Royal College of Music in London’, Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association, Vol. 96 (1969 – 1970), pp. 1-28

Urkevich, L., ‘Music Books of Women: Private Treasures and Personal Revelations’, Early Modern Women: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 4 (2009), pp.175-185

The CDs of both Anne Boleyn’s Songbook and The Spy’s Choirbook are available for instance from Amazon in the UK.

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