What do you think of when you think of Henry VII? His desperation to consolidate the Tudor dynasty by producing a son? The low survival rate amongst his wives? The dissolution and looting of the monasteries? Plunging England into generations of religious and political turmoil? His ruthless suppression of rebellion and dissent? The wars with France? The field of the Cloth of Gold? Well all of those are aspects of the man and his reign but somewhere in there I hope you’ll also make space for Henry Tudor musician and composer.
Henry’s contemporaries held him in high regard both as a musician and composer and we’re fortunate in having the manuscript, known as the Henry VIII Songbook which was produced sometime around 1518 for someone close to the court, possibly Sir Henry Guildford who was Henry VII’s Controller of the Household and Master of the Revels.The Henry VII songbook gives us a clear idea of the very high quality of musical life at Henry’s court. There are no less than seventy six compositions by musicians associated in some way or another with the court amongst them such luminaries as William Cornysh and Robert Fayrfax and thirty three compositions written by ‘The Kynge H. viij’. There are twenty songs and thirteen instrumental pieces many of which are original compositions with the balance comprising arrangements of pre-existing pieces. Most of these compositions pre-date Henry’s accession to the throne although a few were probably composed early on in his reign.
Contained within this collection is Henry’s greatest hit, not "Greensleeves" which was almost certainly not written by him but ‘Pastime with good companie’ (Pastime with Good Company) which Henry is known to have composed shortly after he was crowned in 1509 – it’s signed ‘by the King’s Hand’ which was how he signed all his compositions after he became king. It was an immediate runaway success which soon escaped from the confines of the court and spread throughout England and Wales were it was sung on the streets, and in the taverns, shortly thereafter it spread to the continent. It’s not hard to see why it was so popular it’s got a very catchy tune that is eminently singable and its lyrics extolling the virtues and pleasures of the princely life were daringly raucous. (Slightly dodgy lyrics were the least you could get away with if you were a Renaissance era king). It retained its popularity after Henry’s death, his daughter Queen Elizabeth I who was herself more than merely proficient musician, said that this was her favourite song nor did its popularity die with the Tudors or even the English civil war and the Puritan government it continued to being handed down orally from generation to generation until modern times. As we come close to Christmas with all its feasts and celebrations a song about passing time with good company seems particularly appropriate. Enjoy :-).
Pastime with good companie (The King’s Ballad)
Performers: The King’s Singers
Lyrics: Pastime with good companie (The King’s Ballad)
Pastime with good companie
I love, and shall until I die.
Gruch who lust but none deny;
So God be pleased, thus live will I
For my pastance, hunt, sing and dance;
My heart is set,
All goodly sport, for my comfort,
Who shall me let?
Youth must have some dalliance
Of good or ill some pastance
Company me thinks then best
All thoughts and fancies to digest.
For idleness, is chief mistress
Of vices all,
Then who can say. but mirth and play
is best of all.
Company with honesty
Is virtue, vices to flee,
Company is good and ill,
But every man hath his free will.
The best ensue, the worst eschew,
My mind shall be;
Virtue to use, vice to refuse,
Thus shall I use me.