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Music for Impressing a King: Taverner’s Missa Corona Spinea, Wolsey, and Henry VIII

In March 1527 Henry VIII and his wife Catherine of Aragon visited Cardinal Wolsey’s new foundation – Cardinal’s College – in Oxford.  John Taverner, one of the most famous composers of his time, was commissioned to write an appropriately stunning piece of choral music that would wow the King and his Queen.

Taverner turned out the Missa Corona Spinea, a six part piece that assumes a level of virtuosity from the top part that few singers, even today, could manage.  It was an example of Wolsey’s choir, which was considered to be even better than that of Henry VIII’s.  And those things were compared back then.  A lot.  It wasn’t unheard of for the King to try to negotiate with one of Wolsey’s top choristers to recruit him over to the Chapel Royal.  It was a mark of your cultural taste and affluence to be able to support an outstanding choir, and the competition was fierce.

Henry VIII likely heard the piece and, rather than being impressed with the skill of his chief minister, he was pissed off.  The setting would have been amazing that night.  You can listen to it and imagine sitting in a candlelit chapel, jewelry and lush fabrics reflected in the flickering light, this music soaring around – and you can feel the magic of the setting.  The soprano part is a full octave higher than the rest of the piece, and the piece would have been talked about for a long time after its premiere.

Poor Wolsey.  It just wasn’t going to work out for him.  Henry was already starting to get impatient with his wife, and trying to find a way to extricate himself from his marriage so that he could marry the young and fertile Anne Boleyn, with whom he was besotted.  Wolsey’s job was to figure out a way for Henry to get himself free.  And he was failing.  Miserably.

It wasn’t all Wolsey’s fault.  He tried his darndest.  But the Pope, who could grant such freedom through annulments, wasn’t in the mood to help Henry, in part because he was effectively being held captive by Catherine’s nephew.  Wolsey fell short because he was working within a set framework.  It took Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer to dismantle the framework entirely.  Wolsey wanted permission from the Pope.  Cranmer didn’t need the Pope.

The Sixteen have released a new recording of the Missa Corona Spinea (the Mass of the Crown of Thorns) which is receiving mixed reviews by listeners.  Some saying that it’s just too damn high.  I’m not a big fan of a dominant treble line, but it does seem to be what Taverner had planned in this instance at least.  I will leave that to the music critics to hash out amongst themselves.  For me, I’m more interested in the history of this piece, and the potential that it helped to bring down Wolsey thanks to a jealous Henry VIII, who was frustrated at how useless Wolsey was becoming when he still had such a kickass choir.

Note To Self: If you’re doing a crap job for your boss, don’t invite him over to show off all your new toys you bought with his money.