Friday, 13 February 2015

The Spy's Choirbook

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Petrus Alamire's gift to Henry VIII

One of the most beautiful musical manuscripts in the British Library came to life at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

EARLY 16th-century Europe typically consisted of educated men who excelled in several professions - from merchants to engineers, musical composers and scribes. With such an abundance of talent and crossover of jobs, daily business often times became intertwined amongst so many different individuals and places. It all paints a very lively picture of the times. There was also a man who once could proclaim to be one of the leading musical writers of his generation, among many other trades. But, as with all great dramas of fiction and reality, his history rose to the highest of highs, only to abruptly end with the classic fall from prominence. Such was the life of Petrus Alamire. A careful diplomat, scribe and a musician, protected under the patronage of royalty and religious order, he served under Cardinal Wolsey as a spy for Henry VIII in his early years as king. Like many spies at the time, they were able to play the dual role of agents of secrets and men who plied in respectable trades such as book sellers and artists. Having the ability to travel across Europe as a cultured individual was paramount to their success. While in the courts of other rulers and monarchs, these talented characters were able to deftly collect as much information as they could, only to return home and reap the rewards of their secretive services.
     And there we discover the folly of Alamire, who found himself in dire straits after his devious attempt at being a double agent, as the relaying of vital information to both Henry VIII and the English pretender Richard de la Pole - via Louis XII - proved costly. But this is not the story of Alamire's fall from grace or his life as an educated, cultured, back-room dealing fellow. It is the tale of his great legacy, not as a man of court intrigue, but rather as the talented creator of one of the finest musical manuscripts in the British Library: the Royal 8.G.vii; or more aptly named, The Spy's Choirbook, performed for the first time in centuries this past Sunday in London.
     Richly illuminating, Alamire's masterpiece contained the finest French and Franco-Flemish repertory of the time and was most likely given to Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon in 1516 as one of several musical gifts to the famous king. It contains 28 latin motets, along with six works on texts from Virgil's Aeneid by some of the best European composers of the time. Among them were Josquin Desprez, Heinrich Isaac, Jean Mouton, while more than half of the compositions were anonymous - though just as incredibly enriching, if not better. Most have never been played in modern times.
     The group responsible for giving life to this forgotten collection is none other than the appropriately named Alamire ensemble, who have some of the finest consort singers in the world, under the charismatic directorship of David Skinner. Celebrating it's 10th anniversary year, Alamire was started by three friends in 2005, all early music experts: Rob Macdonald, Steven Harrold and Skinner. The group is mainly inspired by the works of the medieval and early modern periods between c.1400 and c.1700. As their own website explains, Alamire "expands or contracts according to repertoire and often combines with instrumentalists, creating imaginative programmes to illustrate musical or historical themes." They gathered up the contents of the manuscript a few years ago and through Obsidian Records in October 2014, gave the audience of the musical world a chance to once again experience Alamire's rich gift to an infamous king.
     Alamire's performance of the Spy's Choirbook last Sunday at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse on the south bank of the Thames in London was mesmerising, enchanting and fantastic beyond words. The ensemble performed in the recently finished dim and candlelit playhouse that stands adjacent to Shakespeare's Globe. Constructed using the layout and style of the Jacobean Blackfriars Theatre of the 17th-century, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse was the ideal indoor facility to bring the Spy's Choirbook to life. Sitting in the crowd, breathing in the wax infused air of the playhouse, one could not help but feel a sense of connection with a century long gone. Together in collaboration with the English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble, Alamire proceeded to perform a selection of the best pieces from the collection, interwoven with insightful tales of the book's history given by David Skinner himself. His short anecdotes were informative, with a light touch of humour that was welcome by all. What Skinner pointed out early in the afternoon performance stood out prominently. When we think of Henry VIII, his famous portrait of portly distinction and authority comes to mind. A man approaching fifty and famously needing assistance in all aspects of his physical mobility. However, the man who received the musical gift from Petrus Alamire in 1516 was a youthful king in his twenties; strong and athletic, charismatic and full of life. A Henry VIII of vigour and music.
     As the performance drew to its inevitable conclusion, there was comfort in the fact that more enchanting medieval melodies by Alamire awaited the musical audience of the 21st-century. Their next project will be the Anne Boleyn Songbook (Royal College of Music, MS 1070), due to be recorded in the spring of this year.
     Petrus Alamire's story is intriguing, delightful and very much interesting. Leave it to others to dig up the details, surprises, the why's and who's of the truth. For now, I shall only venture to enjoy the extraordinary, exceptional music.

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