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Gentilz, L Urkevich conducting

Anne Boleyn's Music Book

MS 1070 of the Royal College of Music

Lisa Urkevich, 1997

Anne Boleyn’s Music Book (MS 1070 of the Royal College of Music, London) is a French source whose works date from ca1505 – ca1517 (Urkevich, 1997). The bulk of its pieces, which include thirty-nine religious Latin motets and three French chansons, are by the finest continental composers of the day. They have been found in many Renaissance sources and have been performed relatively often. But twelve pieces in the book, the anonymous pieces, have likely not been performed in almost five hundred years [before this 2001 performance]. Eight of the twelve anonymous works are especially distinguished since they appear in no other source—they are unica. This uniqueness indicates that thy were composed at the French court, either commissioned for a particular person or event, or perhaps written by one of the people who would have performed from the book, that is Anne Boleyn or her royal companions. The anonymous pieces, including unica, and two French chansons from the music book are presented in this concert.


Anne went to France in 1514 as the French-speaking attendant to the new queen, Mary Tudor (Henry VIII’s sister), who had wed the aging French king, Louis XII. Louis XII died a few months into the marriage and Francis I succeeded to the throne. Mary Tudor returned to England, but Anne, who was well liked by the French royal women, was detained.


Anne would have become quite close with the Ladies of the French nobility. Renaissance court culture was largely gender segregated, and it was standard practice for royal women to rear and supervise lesser-ranking girls at their palaces Together, Anne and her noble advisors would have attended Mass, recited poetry, studied languages, performed plays, worked on embroidery, and performed music. It is most certain that they performed from the so-called Anne Boleyn music book. Anne’s name appears within the piece “Paranymphus” by the French composer Compere (#7 above) near the alto part, which she may have sung. The initials of her dear friend Marguerite d'Alencon, the king’s sister and later Queen of Navarre, appear with a French chanson.


It is also possible that Anne and her companions composed one or more of the anonymous works.  Marguerite, who surrounded herself with the greatest thinks of the day (including John Calvin), was a progressive poet and writer of famous works, including plays and ballads.  Although music composition was thought of as a male profession, it would not have been unusual for such a creative person as Marguerite, who delved into other “male” crafts, to try her hand at music or encourage those around her to do so.


Anne brought the music book back to England in 1521, and thus it is a rare source, one of few French motet books that survived the destruction that befell other Renaissance manuscripts during the French Revolution.

© 2019

Lisa Urkevich

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