Six pieces of music inspired by Henry VIII and his wives

Sunday 4 July marks the last concert in our BBC Radio 3 Artist Portrait series. Soprano Louise Alder and pianist Joseph Middleton will perform Libby Larsen's Try Me, Good King, songs drawn from the final letters and speeches of Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard. Ahead of the concert, we take a look at music from history, TV and cinema that has been inspired by Henry VIII and his six wives. 

 1. Debunking the myth: Greensleeves

Instantly recognisable and immensely hummable, Greensleeves is quintessentially Tudor, and the melody has been taken up by composers over hundreds of years, including Ralph Vaughan Williams. Greensleeves is often mistakenly known as a piece composed by King Henry VIII. Although he was a talented composer, historians now believe that Greensleeves dates to Elizabethan times – after the reign of Henry VIII. One piece of evidence that points toward this is that the song was originally registered as 'A New Northern Dittye of the Lady Greene Sleeves' in 1580, 33 years after Henry VIII's death. In addition, the song takes after an Italian style that wasn't popular in England until after Henry’s death, in 1547. 

2. Pastime with Good Company
on the other hand...

Pastyme wt good copanye, or The King's Ballad is believed to have been written by Henry VIII, after his coronation in 1509 and his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. The song was popular during the 16th century, performed both in the royal court and sung in taverns. It is thought to be a favorite of the King's daughter, Elizabeth. Henry VIII was esteemed as a composer, and it was recorded that he could play the cornett, regal, flute, virginals, recorder, lute, harp and organ. Pastime with Good Company is among the compositions found in the Henry VIII Manuscript, now kept in the archives of the British Library. 

3. What about Henry's wives? Donizetti's Anna Bolena

Donizetti's opera Anna Bolena premiered in 1830, 294 years after the titular character's execution. England was thrown into turmoil when Henry VIII divorced his his first wife Katherine of Aragon and married Anne Boleyn, breaking from the Catholic church to do so. Although this new marriage began promisingly, it soon turned sour, and Anna Bolena is set in the final months of this doomed relationship.

Anne is set as a tragic heroine, and we watch as Henry begins an affair with her attendant Jane Seymour (who would go on to become his third wife), accuses her of betrayal and sentences her to execution. 

4. Something more contemporary: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall is a 2015 six-part series based on Booker Prize-winning novels by Hilary Mantel. It chronicles Thomas Cromwell's rise to power to become one of the wealthiest, most powerful men in King Henry VIII's court; Henry VIII's quest to find a male heir; and his failed marriages to Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. 

British composer Debbie Wiseman created a celebrated and original score mixing Tudor and contemporary instrumentation to evoke the musical atmosphere of the time. Performed by the Locrian Ensemble Of London, Debbie said, 'My aim was to create a musical world inspired by the vitality and elegance of the novels, and the vivid screenplay by Peter Straughan... I decided it shouldn’t sound like a pastiche of Tudor music. There’s no sense of looking at the characters through some stained-glass window.'

5. A radical reimagining: The musical Six 

First premiering at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017, the show – written and composed by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss – retells the story of Henry VIII's six wives in the form of a pop concert. Each wife takes the stage to battle for the position of the band's lead singer, with the winner being the wife who endured the most during their marriage to Henry VIII. Katherine of Aragon's solo No Way incorporates components of the real-life Katherine's 'Blackfriars Speech', as well as inspiration from contemporary pop such as Beyoncé's Lemonade. 

6. In their own words: Try Me, Good King

Libby Larsen's Try Me, Good kKing is a group of five songs drawn from the final letters and gallows speeches of Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard. Larsen delves deep into the lives of the first five of six wives of Henry VIII, exploring the personal consequences of power that hung over the Tudor family; and political circumstances in both the church and state which caused a great deal of harm to each of the wives.

Each text has a corresponding lute melody, with each song representing how each Queen felt at the time. Most lute songs were written around the time of Queen Elizabeth I, daughter of Anne Boleyn; with some of the poetry used possibly evolving from events of the Queens’ lives. For Katherine of Aragon and Catherine Howard, Larsen chose John Dowland’s In Darkness Let Me Dwell to reflect their emotions at the time. For Anne Boleyn, Dowland’s If My Complaints Passions Could Move was chosen, to reflect her trial, and her eventual death. Jane Seymour's accompanying lute song Praetorius’ Lo, how a Rose E’er Blooming was chosen to represent her son, known as the Tudor Rose. Thomas Campion’s I Care Not for these Ladies was chosen for the simple fact that Henry VIII wasn't attracted to Anne of Cleves. 

Join us at LSO St Luke's on Sunday 4 July 2021 to hear Larsen's Try Me, Good King performed by Louise Alder and Joseph Middleton. 

BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert
Artist Spotlight: Louise Alder & Joseph Middleton

Sun 4 Jul 2021 1.00pm - 2.15pm
Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke's, London

Selection of songs by Amy Beach, Lili Boulanger, Alma Mahler, and Clara Schumann
Libby Larsen Try Me, Good King

Louise Alder soprano
Joseph Middleton piano


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