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LIEDERPALOOZA SPOTLIGHT: Libby Larsen’s ‘Try Me, Good King’

September 3, 2014
Catherine of Aragon

This weekend, VOX 3 Collective presents an extended “open house” afternoon of art song to benefit The Lied, Art Song, and Choral Texts Archive, an online repository of classical song texts and translations.

Please join us for Liederpalooza on Saturday, September 6 at PianoForte Chicago! Tickets are free; seats may be reserved here.

In the following article, soprano Meghan Guse shares some background on one of the cycles programmed for this Saturday. The VOX 3 Collective performance of Try Me, Good King will feature 4 sopranos (Kelsey Harris, Jenny Cook, Laura Perkett, and Meghan Guse) portraying the wives of Henry VIII.

Few stories are as well-known as the story of Henry VIII, King of England, and his six wives. Many people are familiar with the dark nursery rhyme used to remember the order of the wives: “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.” Libby Larsen (b. 1950) was so struck by this nursery rhyme as a child that she spent a great deal of time researching the stories behind that nasty little ditty: who these women were what their circumstances were before they gained favor with the king, and why they met such awful ends. The first five wives were of particular interest to Larsen because they were willfully cast aside or done away with. The sixth wife, Catherine Parr, was lucky enough to outlive Henry, and also served as a peace-making force between the warring factions and families who were left to squabble after Henry’s death.

"Anne Boleyn" by an unknown artist, Hever Castle, Kent.

“Anne Boleyn” by an unknown artist, Hever Castle, Kent.

According to Larsen, she “…chose to focus on the intimate crises of the heart that affected Henry’s first five wives. In a sense, this group of songs is a monodrama of anguish and power.” Larsen also wove lute songs into the accompaniment of the pieces: John Dowland’s “In darkness let me dwell” for Katherine of Aragon and Katherine Howard, the first and fifth wives; Dowland’s “If my complaints” for Anne Boleyn, his second wife; and Thomas Campion’s “I care not for these ladies” for Anne of Cleves, his fourth wife. The affect is not that of pastiche Renaissance flavor; instead, Larsen’s incorporation of these tunes just deepens the historical, complex flavor of these songs. Bell tolls also appear frequently in all five pieces of the cycle.

Queen Jane - Hans Holbein the Younger

“A painting of Queen Jane” by Hans Holbein the Younger, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

The wives themselves were all incredibly different women, all from different backgrounds and upbringings. Katherine of Aragon was the daughter of the King and Queen of Spain, and was a virtuous and pious Catholic who was married to Henry for seventeen years. It was only after many failed pregnancies and only one successful pregnancy that resulted in their daughter Mary (otherwise known as Bloody Mary), that Henry decided it was time to move on to a younger wife who might supply him with what he wanted more than anything: a son. Anne Boleyn caught his eye, but she was unwilling to become his mistress, so Henry was forced to break with the Church in Rome in order to obtain a divorce from Katherine and to make Anne his lawful bride. However, Henry was not amused with Anne for long (especially after she gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth). When her enemies planted rumors of treason and incest in the King’s ear, he was only too happy to send her off to the executioner.

"The painting of Anne" by Hans Holbein the Younger, Musee du Louvre, Paris.

“The painting of Anne” by Hans Holbein the Younger, Musee du Louvre, Paris.

He was not a bachelor for long, however: young Jane Seymour had caught his eye while he was still married to Anne, and he married her days after Anne’s execution. Jane was able to give him that much longed-for son, but she died days after young James’ birth. Henry actually waited several months while ministers found him a new bride, one of royal birth from the Low Countries. However, Anne of Cleves was not exactly Henry’s choice (and Anne was not too taken with him either, so after a short marriage Henry obtained yet another divorce (Anne was only too happy to oblige). Katherine Howard was the next to catch Henry’s eye, but her youthful passion and earlier romantic affairs soon turned Henry against her, and she was sent to the executioner, just like her cousin Anne Boleyn.

"A miniature" by Hans Holbein the Younger, The Royal Collection.

“A miniature” by Hans Holbein the Younger, The Royal Collection.

The final words of each wife and the way in which Larsen set them perfectly suited their personalities and situations. Katherine of Aragon was ever loyal, Anne Boleyn was haughty and angry at being betrayed, Jane Seymour was happy to have given him a son, Anne of Cleves was happy to be rid of Henry, and Katherine Howard was young and absolutely terrified of the punishment that awaited her. I have also included portraits of the five wives during their last words. Understanding and sympathizing with these five women during their most trying times is easier when one can connect a face with their words. These were ordinary women who living through unbearable pain and anguish, and Larsen was sure to capture these emotions in her music.

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