The King’s Ballad

With the passing of King Henry VII of England, and the ascension to the throne by his son Henry VIII, England officially entered the Renaissance.  This was, perhaps, a bit slow by the standards of Europe, but as they say, they got there in the end.  What’s interesting is the perception of such a thing.  Most of Europe had no idea a Renaissance was happening, the era being thus labeled in hindsight by historians.  By contrast, it felt to England as though the land had entered a new golden age.   And while maybe it didn’t turn out quite as some would have hoped, it still gave us some positive points to enjoy.  One such bright spot is the music.

In keeping with the age-old tradition of “the heir and the spare,” Henry had never intended to sit upon the throne.  That duty was supposed to have gone to his brother Arthur, who died too early to claim the role.  Henry’s mind was geared instead towards the faith, towards sport (as befitting most nobles of the era), and towards the arts, especially music.

We are fortunate enough to have a manuscript dating from around 1518 known as the Henry VIII Songbook.  It includes 20 songs and 13 instrumental works as composed by ‘The Kynge H. viij’.  There are also some 76 other works from leading English composers of the day such as William Cornysh and Robert Fayrfax, some foreign composers.

Obviously I’m not going to go through all of these, especially in the course of a single blog post.  For purposes of this entry I thought it’d be fun to offer you but one of Henry’s best known works that is still being performed today, and not just by Early Music ensembles.  You see, while Henry could never be accused of being a fantastic composer, especially when compared to some of the musical giants of his own time, he was still capable of writing rather catchy pop tunes.  A number of them are infinitely hummable and will likely get stuck in your head, probably none so much as the subject of this post.

Before we go any further, there’s an elephant in the room that I’d like to address regarding one such infinitely hummable tune in particular.

There is a widespread and extremely persistent legend that the song “Greensleeves” was composed by Henry for Anne Boleyn, a response to her rejection of him, as presumably noted in the line “cast me off discourteously.”  Even the popular television show The Tudors has pushed this idea.  Friends, while it’s fun to consider for soap opera purposes, this rumor can be summarily dismissed.  According to modern scholarship, not only did Henry not write this, he was dead and buried before it was written.  If you’re interested in exploring the myth and reality in depth, I highly recommend this 3-part article at earlymusicmuse.com.  It’s a fantastic site all around, and far more in-depth than I’m capable of achieving in my humble scribbles here.

I have to admit, I love finding and sharing this stuff.  If I could share my entire music library, I would, but apparently the authorities frown on such things.  Enough of that.  Let’s get to the point of this blog and play some of Henry’s music, shall we?

Henry VIII Pastyme with Good Companye

“Pastyme With Good Companye”

Probably Henry’s most popular work, and certainly my favorite among his tunes, is “Pastyme With Good Companye,” or “Pastime with Good Company” for all of you who prefer your English to be modernized.  Also known as “The King’s Ballad,” this song was written presumably just after Henry’s coronation.  Some have suggested that he wrote it for his queen, Katherine of Aragon.  Whatever the case, we know that at this point in history, things were looking up for the realm.  It says quite a bit, I think, that even though the good times clearly didn’t last, the song certainly did.  It would have originated in court, certainly, but it would have been passed along for fairs, taverns, and eventually to other courts.  Historians think the song was a favorite in the court of Elizabeth I based on contemporary documents, as well as being quite popular in Scotland in the early 16th century.  There’s no telling where it went from there.  The point is it’s still around, it’s still being performed, reinterpreted over the years for a wide variety of styles and instrumentation.

For comparison purposes, and for grins, I thought maybe you’d like to hear some of these different versions for yourself.

The first one I’ll offer is a version by The King’s Singers that gives us the vocals in a more choir-like performance.  It’s probably not in keeping with Henry’s original intent, though it is certainly classy.  But truly, who can say for certain anymore what Henry’s intent may have been?  It’s been 500 years.  What I can tell you is the language in this performance is not modernized, so you’ll hear the lyrics in their original form.  The nice thing about it is that while the spelling looks a little funny to modern eyes when written down, it’s pretty close phonetically to what we understand today.

Or maybe you’d like to hear it performed by a trombone quartet?  It’s not exactly period instrumentation, but something like this accents just how catchy the tune can be, even without lyric accompaniment.

Now let’s combine the best of both worlds.  One of my all-time favorite bands, Blackmore’s Night, was inspired by music such as this.  Many of their songs use modern lyrics and a mix of traditional and modern rock instrumentation over Early Music tunes.  I sometimes wonder what Renaissance-era bards would think about how concert performances have evolved.

Modern interpretation doesn’t stop there.  For instance, Jethro Tull recorded it under the title “King Henry’s Madrigal”…

… Gryphon recorded it in a more traditional style for their self-titled album…

… and it even appears in part for more modern and radical interpretation.  Take, for instance, this song “Legacy of Tudors” by Serenity, which uses the first verse of Henry’s original song to set the stage.

This is but a sampling of what’s out there, and if you dig far enough you can find all manner of interpretations that might surprise you.  As you can see for yourself, Henry’s idea of a good time still holds up today.

No queens were lost in the writing of this post.

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