It’s not difficult to find parallels between England in the late 16th century and the same country today. At the time of the Reformation, a disunited kingdom was being torn by sectarian schisms, as a feckless ruler undermined the very fabric of English society in order to achieve a personal goal—and here, of course, we’re talking about Henry VIII’s establishment of the Church of England in order to override the Catholic clerics who had forbidden him to divorce and remarry. In a sense, Brexit’s not all that different: power-hungry and amoral politicians like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson somehow managed to convince a clueless population that it would be better off without the economic security, lifestyle options, and collective bargaining power of the European Union. In both instances, families have been torn apart and rifts have opened between the component parts of the U.K. itself—England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
So it’s interesting that at least a few staunch defenders of the English heritage see applying the music of one era to the other as a means of possibly healing those wounds. That, at least, is the subtext of Royal Blood: Music for King Henry VIII, the program that the august King’s Singers will present for Early Music Vancouver this weekend.
On the surface, it’s simply a well-chosen survey of English choral music, from baroque masters like Henry Purcell and William Byrd to historically influenced modernists such as Benjamin Britten and Richard Rodney Bennett. But group spokesperson Jonathan Howard allows that, at the current moment, it’s definitely appropriate to celebrate English greatness rather than Little England.
“It’s funny: you have to ask yourself what can we do as a nation—as a people, as artists, as individuals—to try to heal that rift,” he says, in a telephone interview from a Portland, Oregon, tour stop. “You know, we shouldn’t be punishing people for holding beliefs; people are entitled to their values, and their arguments for and arguments against staying in the European Union. I happened to vote to stay in the European Union, and lots and lots of artists did, but I think it’s wrong to berate people for holding different views to the ones we hold ourselves. And what we have to see is whether we can use forces like music to heal some of the wounds that are being caused by not being able to accept the beliefs of others.”
The salve here is that the best aspects of English culture—its resilience, its plainspokenness, its veneration of beauty—are embodied in its music. “In times of trouble, our chief outlet is either a musical or an artistic one,” says Howard, who sings bass in the a cappella sextet. “There have been so many examples through history where people in struggle come together through singing. In the late 16th and early 17th century there was so much upheaval that people who were professional musicians, working in chapels or writing for the royal family, their chief way of expressing their internal troubles, their internal anguish, their internal happiness was through their writing and their performances of music. So, yes, it’s something we see time and time again.”
Howard also cites the popular songs that came out of the civil rights movement in the United States and the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa as expressions of the same impulse. U.K. pop has yet to mount either an effective rebuttal or an enthusiastic endorsement of Brexit, Howard notes, but contemporary composers are stepping up. “Nitin Sawhney has just written an extended piece on Brexit and how it’s divided us,” he says. “And those artistic responses are maybe the ones that we should turn to now, to see how we can move forward as a nation.”
Early Music Vancouver presents the King’s Singers at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Saturday (February 9).