In about 1527, the commune of Florence made the gift of a set of five manuscript music books, in a beautiful suite of morocco gilt bindings, to King Henry VIII of England, who at the time was still married to his first wife, Katharine of Aragon. With scholarly accuracy, I should say, “The commune of Florence is believed to have made the gift….” We don’t know for sure whether Henry ever held the books in his hands; but I like to imagine he did. We have some information about the ownership of the books beginning in the nineteenth century, but nothing earlier. The Newberry purchased them from a London bookseller in 1935. The books contain polyphonic vocal music, both sacred and secular: motets, for devotional purposes, and madrigals, for entertainment.
The Newberry, however, did not acquire all the books. One of the five was missing. The set contains partbooks, intended for singing the music or even playing it on instruments. Partbooks are eminently practical to work from, especially when each book contains only one voice part, as in the Henry VIII books. Each performer has his or her own book, rather than having to share. Unfortunately, partbooks often survive in incomplete sets. In this case, the “altus” part somehow became separated from the others. Nobody knew whether it had even survived.
The musicologist Colin Slim prepared a magistral scholarly edition of the Henry VIII partbooks, which was published in 1972 (A Gift of Madrigals and Motets, University of Chicago Press). Although the altus book was missing, Slim was able to use concordant sources to provide the altus parts for fifty of the motets and madrigals included. For the other ten pieces, he composed the missing altus part himself, applying the rules of Renaissance counterpoint. After his edition came out, the fifth book turned up in England – at St. Mary’s College, Oscott, commonly known as Oscott College. Sadly, the Oscott book is in poor condition, compared to the exceptionally well-preserved Newberry books. Nonetheless, Colin Slim was able to produce a supplement to his edition, providing the newly-discovered altus parts for the ten pieces for which he had had to create them. But this was almost unnecessary. His reconstructions proved to have been excellent.
People sometimes wonder whether the Newberry plans to try to acquire the fifth book from Oscott, in order to complete the set. The answer is, probably not. We don’t need to have that book on hand to perform the music, since we have Colin Slim’s edition. He and I talked about this recently. We rather like the idea that one of the books remains in England, as a testimony to their provenance. In light of Henry VIII’s subsequent dealings with the Catholic church, there is a certain irony to the fact that Oscott College is the Roman Catholic seminary of the Archdiocese of Birmingham.
Posted by Carla Zecher, Director of the Newberry Center for Renaissance Studies and Curator of Music
Call number: Newberry Case MS minus VM 1578 .M91