The Royal College of Music has in its possession a rather unassuming manuscript volume of motets and a few chansons, known as Anne Boleyn’s Songbook. The music is mostly by French or Franco-Flemish composers from the early 16th century, although the jury is still out as to its actual provenance. The connection with Henry VIII’s second wife is largely based on an inscription in the book, in an English hand: ‘Mistres ABolleyne nowe thus’, ‘nowe thus’ being the Boleyn family motto. The early music consort Alamire’s director, David Skinner has carried out extensive research, and he remains convinced of the connection between the book and Anne Boleyn, although the exact purpose behind the collection is still unclear.

Anne Boleyn
Anne Boleyn
So Skinner has selected pieces from the 42 works in the book and formed an engaging programme revealing the varied compositions that perhaps took Anne’s fancy in her early years in Austria, and at the French court, before coming to England. Following well-received performances in September, and riding high with their CD of the project nominated for a BBC Music Award, Alamire reprised the programme here as part of the Choral at Cadogan season.

Alamire’s sound is immediately arresting, and noticeably different from many of the other major consorts around, despite drawing on a number of familiar faces amongst the vocal forces. Skinner goes for a more direct, assertive sound, with the individual lines much more present, particularly in the lower voices. Whereas other groups aim for a purity of blend above all else, Skinner allows the structure of the music to speak, and is never afraid to allow the sound to carry some weight.

They opened with Mouton’s atmospheric Tota pulchra, for four male voices, sung two to a part from the balcony above the Cadogan Hall stage. The men relished the warm textures of this low voice writing, and Skinner encouraged the resonant sound they produced. This was followed immediately on the stage below by alto Clare Wilkinson singing what is effectively a drinking song, albeit a rather courtly one, the anonymous Gentilz galans compaingnons, accompanied by Kirsty Whatley on harp. Wilkinson’s style was light and direct, and she communicated the text engagingly. At once these two opening pieces demonstrated the breadth of musical styles in the songbook, and set the scene for an entertaining and well-devised programme ahead.

David Skinner introduced the music, giving useful background information in a straightforward and entertaining way, providing context and giving some insight into the questions faced in researching this manuscript and the repertoire. Many of the texts centre on themes of marriage, childbirth and love, all supposedly ahead for Anne and Henry at the time. Compère’s Paranymphus salutat virginem, another rich four part men’s voice setting, taken at a healthy tempo here, speaks of the chaste Mary bringing forth a son, that which Anne was alas never able to provide to Henry. Whilst Mouton’s In illo tempore, sung by the full 12 voices in four parts (with a particularly rich baritone line), is a setting of text from Matthew, ending with the surely significant line ‘Quod ergo Deus coniunxit, homo non separet’ (What, therefore, God hath joined together, let no man put asunder) – and Mouton cleverly sets the first half of this phrase homophonically, before the individual lines ironically go their separate ways polyphonically for ‘non separet’.

Josquin’s Stabat Mater opened the second half, a glorious five-part setting. This is a real masterpiece, with smooth shapely lines and beautiful word-painting, a cascade of falling lines for the ‘fons amoris’ (‘fountain of love’). The other Josquin work in the programme, the rich and dark motet, Praeter rerum seriem, with is deep sonorities, right from the mysterious opening duet of two low bass parts, was again given the fuller sound treatment, and ‘Quis scrutatur?’ (‘who can really know?’) was given extra emphasis, perhaps extrapolating from the theme of childbirth, to the inherent uncertainty in Anne’s later situation without a male heir for Henry.

To end, soprano Camilla Harris read movingly from Anne Boleyn’s letter to Henry written from the Tower of London before her death, and then Clare Wilkinson and Jacob Heringman performed O Deathe rock me asleep, the one work not included in Anne’s collection, but long associated with (and possibly even written by) her. Wilkinson’s period pronunciation and heartfelt simplicity, combined with the incessant tolling bell and twisting false relations on the word ‘sound’ in the lute part, made for a moving conclusion to a highly evocative and expertly performed programme.

Perhaps understandably, following a warm reception from the surprisingly small audience, David Skinner couldn’t leave things on such a mournful note, so the singers returned to give a gloriously warm performance of Byrd’s anthem to Anne’s daughter, O Lord make thy servant Elizabeth.

*****