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The Spy's Choirbook - Petrus Alamire & the Court of Henry VIII - 2CD set

The Spy's Choirbook - Petrus Alamire & the Court of Henry VIII - 2CD set

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Winner of Best Early Music disc at the 2015 Gramophone Magazine awards

Among the musical treasures in the British Library is MS Royal 8.g.vii, a sumptuous choirbook prepared for Henry VIII and his first queen Catherine of Aragon. It was produced by Petrus Alamire, who not only headed one of the finest musical scriptoriums of the age but acted as a spy for Henry against Richard de la Pole, a Plantagenet claimant to the English throne.

The choirbook, gifted to the royal couple in around 1516, contains 34 motets, many of them unique to this manuscript and includes masterworks by the leading French and Franco-Flemish composers of the age including Josquin Desprez, Jean Mouton, Heinrich Isaac, Antoine de Févin, and Pierre de la Rue.


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CD 1
1. Celeste beneficium (Jean Mouton, c.1459-1522)
2. Adiutorium nostrum (Antoine de Févin, c.1470-1511/12)
3. Nesciens mater (Anonymous)
4. Ave regina caelorum (Pierre de la Rue, c.1452-1518)
5. Descendi in hortum meum (attrib. Josquin Desprez, c.1450-1521)
6. Sancta trinitas unus Deus (Févin)
7. Vexilla Regis / Passio Domini nostri (La Rue)
8. Fama malum (Josquin Desprez)
9. Doleo super te frater mi Ionatha (La Rue)
10. O Domine Iesu Christe / Et sanctissima mater tua (Anonymous)
11. Maxsimilla Christo amabilis (Anonymous)
12. Sancta Maria succurre miseris / O werder mondt (Franciscus Strus, fl. 1500)
13. Sancta et immaculata virginitas (Anonymous)
14. Missus est Gabriel archangelus (Josquin)
15. Dulcissima virgo Maria (Anonymous)
16. Tota pulchra es amica mea / O pulcherrima mulierum / Salve (Anonymous)
17. O sancta Maria virgo virginum (Anonymous)
18. Verbum bonum et suave (Pierrequin de Therache, c.1470-1528)
19. Recordamini quomodo praedixit filium (Anonymous)
20. O beatissime Domine Iesu Christe / Fac me de tua gratia ut (Anonymous)

CD 2
1. Ave sanctissima Maria (Anonymous)
2. Ecce Maria genuit nobis (Mouton)
3. Congratulamini mihi omnes (Anonymous)
4. Egregie Christi martir Christophore / Ecce enim (Févin)
5. Alma redemptoris mater (Anonymous)
6. Dulces exuviae (Anonymous)
7. Dulces exuviae (Alexander Agricola, c.1446-1506)
8. Dulces exuviae (Josquin)
9. Dulces exuviae (Mouton)
10. Dulces exuviae (Johannes Ghiselin, fl. 1500)
11. Absalon fili mi (attrib. Josquin Desprez / La Rue)
12. Iesus autem transiens (Anonymous)
13. Anima mea liquefacta est / Invenerunt me / Filiae Ierusalem (Heinrich Isaac, c.1445-1517)
14. Tribulatio et angustia invenerunt me (atrrib. Josquin)

ALAMIRE, directed by David Skinner
Sopranos: Grace Davidson, Kirsty Hopkins
Contraltos: Ruth Massey, Martha McLorinan, Clare Wilkinson
Tenors: Guy Cutting, Benjamin Hymas, Nicholas Todd, Simon Wall, Christopher Watson
Baritones: Eamonn Dougan, Greg Skidmore, Timothy Scott Whiteley
Basses: William Gaunt, Robert Macdonald

Gawain Glenton (straight cornetto by Christoph Schuler)
Sam Goble (slide trumpet by Graham Nicholson; curved cornetto by Paolo Fanciullacci)
Emily White (tenor sackbut in A after Schnitzer, by Ewald Meinl)
Tom Lees (tenor sackbut in A after Hainlein, by Egger Workshops)
Nicholas Perry (tenor shawm by John Hanchet/Perry; alto shawm by Robert Cronin/Perry; soprano shawm by Barbara Stanley)
All instruments at A=466


One of the most magnificent musical treasures in the British Library is a sumptuously illuminated choirbook given the shelf-mark Royal MS 8.g.vii. It is magnificent for several reasons, not least its beauty and contents, but also its origin, history, and ultimate destination. The book was devised and assembled in one of the finest music scriptoriums of all of Europe: the workshop of Petrus Alamire. Alamire (aka Peter Imhoff or van den Hove), was not only a brilliant illuminator and music scribe, he was also a noted musician, singer and composer in his own right. As a businessman he adopted the ingenious marketing ploy to change his surname to 'A-la-mi-re', referencing the pitch 'a' within the hexachord system; indeed he often signed his name with musical notation.
As a scribe Alamire enjoyed a hugely successful career, having rubbed shoulders with not only Henry VIII, but also Emperor Maximilian, Margaret of Austria, Charles V, Christian II of Denmark and even the Dutch humanist Erasmus. Born in around 1470 he rose from his German origins in Nuremburg to many fruitful years in Antwerp, first under the employ of the young Archduke Charles then on to a long association as music copyist for the Confraternity of Our Lady for whom he produced a large number of music books. He continued his links with the Hapsburg Burgundian court until 1535, and died on 26 June 1536.
There were, however, many sides to Petrus Alamire: he was also a merchant, mining engineer, and, most notably, a diplomat and spy. Musicians of Alamire's popularity and talent were often widely travelled, frequently visiting the various courts of Europe; such a career was a perfect cover for sensitive political and diplomatic exchanges. A number of letters survive which show that Alamire acted as a spy for Henry VIII against Richard de la Pole, duke of Suffolk and last member of the House of York who openly sought claim to the English throne. Pole was in exile and gained the support of Louis XII of France who aided him in his failed attempt for a Yorkist reclaiming of the English crown. Alamire wrote to Henry VIII in May 1515 to inform him that his musician friends had spied on Pole, and, presumably to gain favour and interest, he sent the king an 'excellent' composition for five voices, as well as six small part-books (which included music by Alexander Agricola), a manicordium 'cum pedale' (thought to be a very early example of a clavichord with pedals) and thirteen crumhorns. Early in 1516 Richard de la Pole was in Metz, where he was visited by Alamire and others in the affair. Here suspicion arose on the English side, and it was feared that Alamire might have become sympathetic to Pole's situation and had engaged in counter-espionage. In Alamire's last letter to Wolsey, dated 1517, he was keen to preserve his reputation by confessing all, but it would seem that trust had diminished and he was never again to return to England. In the same letter, Alamire additionally expressed concern that he received no reward, or even gratitude, for a hoard of musical gifts delivered to Henry VIII, which included five music books, eight cornetts, a large consignment of lute strings and, most interestingly, a magnificent parchment manuscript.
No fewer than four manuscripts from the Alamire scriptorium contain Henry's coat of arms, only one of which ever seems to have been destined for England. It is therefore highly probable that the 'magnificent parchment manuscript' sent to Henry VIII at some point in 1516 or 1517, is indeed Royal 8.g.vii. The first layer of the book includes works which invoke the desire for childbearing. The first two motets - Celeste beneficium by Mouton and Adiutorium nostrum by Févin, both published in 1514 as a pair - were originally composed for Louis XII of France and Anne of Brittany, and here modified for the English royal couple. Unable to produce a male heir, Anne of Brittany died in January 1514 and Louis XII married Henry VIII's sister, Mary Tudor, the following October; however in less than three months Louis himself died. It seems to make sense that the choirbook was indeed originally prepared for Louis and Anne. Upon Louis's death Alamire converted the dedication to Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, who similarly were attempting to produce a male heir, so the subject matter of the music was perfect. Alamire was keen to remain high in Henry VIII's favour, and this was a convenient recipient for a most lavish manuscript with no other destination. One wonders, too, if Mary Tudor had any influence here.
Nevertheless, the transformation was simple: in Adiutorium nostrum the names 'Anna', 'Renate' (intercessor for those desiring children, sons in particular), and 'Ludovicus' (Louis), which were later changed to 'Katherina', 'Georgi' (patron saint of England), and 'Henricus'. Then the first opening of the book was adorned with beautifully executed illustrations of the arms of Henry VIII, with Garter and motto, supported by a dragon and greyhound, with a red and white Tudor rose, as well as a pomegranate (symbol of Catherine of Aragon); other images include a portcullis, Henry VIII's symbol, and a combined Tudor rose and pomegranate. A sumptuous (albeit second-hand) royal gift.
Another interesting aspect of the book is the curious inclusion, pasted at the front, of a Garter canon 'Honi soit qui mal y pense' by Clement Morel, dedicated to 'the earl of Arundel', clearly Henry Fitzalan, who was made a Knight of the Garter in 1544. This was the same earl who oversaw the dissolution of his family's collegiate chapel at Arundel Castle, where the present recording was made. The canon is mentioned in a catalogue made in around 1610 of the estate and library of John Lord Lumley (the son-in-law of the last earl of Arundel, and who inherited the Fitzalan library), but no mention is made here of the choirbook. The canon and the choirbook, therefore, seem to have come together shortly before 1757 when George II left the Royal Library to the newly founded British Museum. At that time the collection, along with others including Lumley, were temporarily housed at Ashburnham House where they were rescued from fire, which claimed so many precious volumes.
Royal 8.g.vii has since lain more or less dormant for several centuries, but the rich legacy of Petrus Alamire remains. He played a central role in preserving the finest compositions of his age, and was a particular advocate of Josquin and De la Rue. The body of manuscripts produced from his workshop amounted to over 600 works, including Masses, motets, chansons and instrumental music. The Spy's Choirbook, and the 34 motets contained within, stands out as perhaps one of the most interesting and musically versatile manuscripts to emerge from his workshop.

None of the motets are attributed, but some are known from other manuscripts or early printed editions. They are without doubt among the finest French and Franco-Flemish compositions available from the first decades of the sixteenth century, which, given the choirbook's royal destination(s), is not surprising.
The late fifteenth and early sixteenth century was one of the most fertile and creative periods for musical composition, and it is no accident that each and every one of these motets are uniquely expressive and inventive. The main composers represented are Josquin Desprez, Pierre de la Rue, Jean Mouton and Antoine de Févin - with notable masterworks from these towering figures - but nearly a third of the choirbook's content remains anonymous, and many of these are among of the gems in the collection. Space does not permit a critique on all, but Dulcissima virgo Maria alone, in its brevity, is utterly teeming with ideas. Essentially a prayer in preparation of death, its texture modulates from a hollow, stark opening to a quite rhythmically marked imitative passage to a most harmonically adventurous setup to the final cadence which may be described as an unprepared cluster-chord before resolution. Tota pulchra es is an exercise on the first four notes of the 'Salve regina' chant, which in the first half is taken in imitation by the upper two voices, and similarly by the lower two in the second half. Such treatment was commonly exploited in the period, but the expert execution of the composed voices which surround the canonic chant seems to suggest a setting by one of the Renaissance masters, if not Josquin himself (though any attribution on style alone is of course dangerous territory). The more extended musical essays, O Domine Iesu Christe and O beatissime Domine Iesu Christe, both similarly meditations on impending death, also demonstrate the variety of textures and harmonic invention of these unknown composers.
There are also a number of works associated with Margaret of Austria and Archduke Charles, sprinkling Hapsburg musical gems among the Tudor court. Doleo super te by La Rue is thought to allude to the death of Margaret's brother, Philip the Fair, while the anonymous O sancta Maria, virgo virginum (here performed by instrumental consort) includes a specific prayer for Charles. Maxsimilla Christo amabilis, also anonymous, is one of the few motets in the book that has a specific liturgical function: its text is a Vespers antiphon for the feast of St Andrew (30 November), patron saint of Burgundy and the Order of the Fleece.
The final layer of the choirbook, thought to have been assembled shortly before delivery to England, includes five consecutive settings of Dido's last words from Virgil's Aeneid which became a popular theme of composers during the early sixteenth century. Another Virgil text Fama malum by Josquin appears much earlier in the choirbook, but the Dulces exuviae motets seem almost to have been included by special request, and it is uncertain whether they were collected together for Anne of Brittany or Catherine of Aragon. As Frank Tirro has noted, there are remarkable parallels in the lives of the two women of this manuscript. Both enjoyed a happy childhood and an auspicious first marriage that ultimately leaded to a tragic end, which is aptly reflected in Virgil's text (see translation below). Both women also suffered the death of a young husband and, later, the torment of many stillborn sons. So it is perhaps no coincidence that the Dulces exuviae set is immediately followed by one of the most profoundly beautiful settings of David's lament of his son, Absalon fill mi, which has long been attributed to Josquin but thought by some to be by La Rue.

David Skinner

The 'loud' wind instruments of Tudor England were the inheritors of a tradition stretching back to the medieval alta capella ensemble and its distinctive three-part combination of shawms and slide trumpet. As instrument technology developed so did the nature of this wind band and by Henry VIII's time the trombone had become a mainstay of such groups, augmented eventually by the recently-imported cornetto. The strength and immediacy of these instruments made them highly practical in large acoustics and ideal for projecting such abstract notions as regal splendour and power. As the sixteenth century developed the nature of these ensembles was to change markedly once again. This recording then is a snapshot of the colourful courtly wind band typical of Henry's time, utilised here in a 'high-art' vocal context rarely heard in modern concerts or recordings.
During Alamire's visits to England it is known that he travelled with the sackbut player Hans Nagel, who also acted as a spy in the Henry VIII/Richard de la Pole affair. Some of the motets in the choirbook, especially in the later layers, seem perfectly adaptable to instrumental performance, especially Recordamini and Iesus autem transiens, which provide only the text incipits while the compositional style is more instrumental than vocal. For other motets the blend between voices and instruments seem perfectly matched, and are here combined for the more substantial items such as the opening motets by Mouton and Févin, and the latter's extended setting of Egregie Christi martir Christophore. Doubling has also been deployed for the final motet in the book Tribulatio et angustia invenerunt me, attributed elsewhere to Josquin. Ave regina caelorum is unique in the choirbook in having three equal upper parts, with unusually wide vocal ranges; this seems, too, to be suitable for instrumental performance. Sancta Maria succurre miseris, by the illusive Franciscus Strus, is constructed around the tune 'O werder mondt', which has been taken by the tenor shawm.
Gawain Glenton & David Skinner

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