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The off hours of Henry VIII

By Leslie Kandell
Tuesday, July 5, 2011
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When King Henry VIII wasn't busy having his wives beheaded, he enjoyed composing and performing within a circle of talented courtiers.

"Music from the Cosmopolitan Court of Henry VIII," an Aston Magna concert for four violas da gamba and tenor, began and ended with the king's pieces, whose subject matter was as varied -- and harmony as complex -- as works of his French, Dutch and German contemporaries.

Several pieces were based on 16th-century popular songs that could change in language as they traveled through different countries with itinerant players. So Aston Magna's gambists had a choice of versions. Vocal and instrumental selections for Saturday's performance in Great Barrington were mostly peppy, in minor key (unexpectedly) and bold in text: "A woman who is sleeping will wake up wanting money," was one line, and another was "Her small waist she full fast unlaced, And said she mourned for me." (Mourned? Do we think so?)

The audience, about a hundred, had two listeners under 60 -- three, possibly -- but not more. It felt like a world about to vanish, with jokes and laments only a few could still understand.

The last program in the series, to be performed Thursday at Bard College (845-758-7425), Friday at Brandeis University and Saturday at Simon's Rock (tickets for both at 413-428-3595), begins with the brilliant, quixotic madrigals of Gesualdo and plows through Brahms and Ravel to Glenn Gould and Peter Schickele. Now that's the world we live in.

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