Travel & Culture

February 13, 2015
The Spy's Choirbook - 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.

January 26, 2015
Weekends in the Cotswolds - UK travel

Getting away for a few days in the beautiful Cotswolds brings relaxation aplenty

A fresh, cool breeze greets my nostrils as I disembark the tour bus. It is crisp, refreshing, emanating a sense of solitude and peace. Birds hurry off into the bright sky while a slight mist drifts in across the rolling hills. As I take my first steps on the soft ground below, a warm aroma of baking bread from the local inn fills the air around us all. This is the charming countryside of the Cotswolds.
     While the demanding work schedule of the month of January continues, escape in some form or other is never far from the mind of a casual citizen of the world. Life in the United Kingdom, as well as continental Europe, brings visions of grand adventures to Europe's finest cities. From Paris and Amsterdam to Munich and Barcelona - all reachable by train in a handful of hours. Such is the great advantage of living in Europe, each country seemingly blending into its closest neighbour - accessibility at its best.
     However, when I first arrived in London, I had a great desire to see England and the United Kingdom first and foremost. I dreamed of picturesque train rides to Edinburgh and the Highlands of Scotland. Sea side strolls on the shores of Wales. Gazing at the white cliffs of Dover and historic treks through the ancient streets of Cirencester and York.

The Cotswolds beckons
Visiting the Cotswolds, I had a particular vision in my mind of what it would be like. Quaint little villages, inhabited by horse-riding pleasant folk who always had a friendly smile. And all this surrounded by the most delightful scenic hills and astonishing views of nature and wildlife. What I actually saw that day far exceeded my wildest imagination. Like a fairytale, it conveys an England of the imagination, rather than the daily commute of city life. Thatched cottages, flowing streams, grazing sheep, timeless churches, country pubs, silent woods and ancient marketplaces are all there to be seen in the Cotswolds. Very much the England of fantasy and history, brought to reality.
     The Cotswolds are essentially 'the Shire' of England, Middle-Earth's favourite rural settlement. With Stratford-upon-Avon (Shakespeare's abode) bordering it to the northeast, and Bath in the southwest, this area in south central England is home to the rolling Cotswold Hills and the famous golden coloured Cotswold stones, of which many of the beautiful cottages are made from.

The dwellings of the Cotswolds
There is a vast assortment of towns and villages to be found in the Cotswolds, each unique in their own way. Aside from the grand view, they all have so many other things to offer, waiting for you to discover. Medieval Tewksbury awaits, as do the villages and towns of Upper and Lower Slaughters, adorable Bibury and Stow-on-the-Wold, offering hill-top views of immense contemplation.
     I enjoyed every minute travelling in the Cotswolds. A truly unique part of England where you can get lost in for a week or simply a day or two. Local inns, restaurants and markets are incredibly welcoming any time of year. I loved exploring the many country lanes and town squares that I came across. Wandering silently through the historic churches that sit peacefully among the hills - only to settle down in a vintage wooden chair in a local village pub. The experiences are endless.
     Venturing beyond the borders of the city can bring timeless surprises of varying beauty. The serene setting of the Cotswolds evokes peaceful thoughts and complete enjoyment to those willing to escape in the imagination of their minds. Local food, hospitality and warmth are only a few of the delights that await the restless traveller. As for myself, I can only admire the careful balance of man and nature embodied so gracefully in this part of the world. It envelops my senses at the close of the weekend as I leave this luscious land of green.

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