Out of the Shadows

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Magnificats and Masques - the fascinating Mister Cornysh

Opening of the O Maria salvatoris mater, by John Browne, in the Eton Choirbook (c. 1490)
Eton Choir BOok
Say the name William Cornysh to most musicians and they will think of the Eton Choirbook. The choirbook, which was compiled circa 1490 to 1502, contains several substantial works by Cornysh alongside those of Browne and Fayrfax. Cornysh's work appears in a few other sources, his Salve Regina is found in a number of places and his Magnificat is in the Caius Choirbooks (compiled 1518 to 1520). And that's the lot for Latin church music by Cornysh, all the other works mentioned in the sources have disappeared. There is, however, secular music in the Fayrfax Book (which was copied in 1501).

Reading Thomas Penn's recent book Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England, William Cornysh leaps of the page. Penn has written a fascinating biography of Henry VII which concentrates on the final years of the king's reign. William Cornysh was one of the servants at court, he became master of the children of the Chapel Royal. During the Twelfth Night celebrations in 1494 around midnight, he appeared dressed as St. George, leading into Westminster Hall a pageant which included a huge red dragon spitting fire.


He was clearly an extrovert, Henry VII used him to organise the celebrations for the wedding of Arthur, Prince of Wales and Princess Catherine of Aragon. These featured the children of the Chapel Royal as a choir of angels surrounding a god-like figure in gold, during the young princely couple's procession through London. Cornysh also organised the evening entertainments, the disguisings, with actors playing out scenes on wheeled carts. The children of the Chapel Royal sang a new carol by Cornysh on Boxing Day 1502. He also set to music lyrics by the poet John Skelton, who had been appointed tutor to Prince Arthur.

But all was not sweetness and light at court. Cornysh was waylaid by heavies associated with one of the various factions at court. He had attempted to tell the truth about something (we don't know what) and was punished for it, being beaten up and thrown into Fleet prison. This was to become a familiar story in the later years of Henry VII's reign, Penn's book is extremely revealing about this. But Cornysh was also a poet, he wrote a poem on the subject, A Treatise between Truth and Innocence, which pleaded his innocence to the King.

This seems to have worked and Cornysh was freed and continued his career at court, though seems to have kept a rather lower profile. At the grand celebrations for the betrothal of Princess Mary (Henry VII's daughter) to Charles of Ghent (the future Holy Roman Emperor Charles V), the entertainments were organised by someone else.

Under Henry VII's son, his career flourished. Cornysh organised revels in 1511, these include a castle, le Fortresse dangerus, with six richly dressed ladies inside whilst Henry VIII and five courtiers assaulted it, plus a disguising (called a mask after the manner of Italy) where the disguised people danced with members of the audience. These disguising/masks/masques became standard at the English court and it was Cornysh, who seems to have made something of a speciality of them, who established the masque as an art-form in England.

The Field of the Cloth of Gole
He organised musical entertainments at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, when Henry VIII met Francis I of France in 1520. One day, in a temporary chapel, the choirs of the French and English Chapels Royal sang in alternation at a service. Cornysh and his choir probably included a motet by Robert Fayrfax, who was present. Cornysh also wrote a three-part song for Henry VIII's wife, Queen Catherine, which commemorated Henry's challenging Francis to combat.

Similarly Cornysh was responsible for the entertainment of Emperor Charles V when he visited London the following year.

In 1522 Ann Boleyn and her sister participated in a revels organised by Cardinal Wolsey. At this one the Chateau Vert contained ladies including Ann, who played Perseverance and her sister, who played  Kindness, along with other women with similar pleasant and virtuous names. Eight choristers from the Chapel Royal were dressed as Indian women with names like Disdain and Unkindness. They defended the Chateau Vert from attackers whose spokesman was Ardent Desire, played by William Cornysh. This was well before either Ann or her sister came to Henry VIII's amorous notice.

Cornysh's training of the children of the Chapel Royal seems to have been exemplary, the standard of the choir amazed the French and Cornysh took them on tour there in 1523. He also took part in plays at Henry VIII's court, surviving ones include The Golden Arbour (1511) and The Triumph of Beauty (1514).


So was this colourful figure the author of the sacred polyphony from the Eton Choir Book. It is conceivable; after all he did teach the children of the Chapel Royal so would have been familiar with polyphony. But it would make him a remarkable polymath and the music from the Eton Choir Book is, frankly, old-fashioned. The dates also work; William Cornysh appears first in 1493 and died in 1525, his dates are usually given as 1465 to 1525. We don't actually know Browne's dates, there is a degree of uncertainty as to which of the historical ones wrote the music in the Eton Choir Book. But Robert Fayrfax's dates are 1464 to 1521


But there is another William Cornysh, one who died in 1502 and who was active as a musician at Westminster Abbey between 1479 and 1491, but continued to live there until his death. he had a close association with Faryfax through the Fraternity of St. Nicholas at Westminster.


The current thinking is that this older Cornysh wrote the sacred music, whilst the younger one wrote the secular music. The older Cornysh may even have been the younger one's father. It is one of the amazing things about this period of history; there is so much that we do know but there are some horrendous gaps.


But there remains the rather delightful thought that the younger William Cornysh amidsts all the disguisings and pageants, was busy writing such pieces as the Salve Regina and Stabat Mater.


The Tallis Scholars singing Cornysh's Ah, Gentle Robin on YouTube.
The Tallis Scholars singing Cornysh's Salve Regina on YouTube

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