The Six Wives Of Henry VIII
As a history major, keyboard enthusiast, and prog-rock fan, I feel like the target market for Rick Wakeman’s classical-prog fusion on his first self-written solo album, The Six Wives Of Henry VIII. There are full band arrangements on every track except ‘Jane Seymour’, with Wakeman’s former band The Strawbs and various members of Yes all providing backing. The inside photograph shows Wakeman surrounded by a grand piano, Hammond organ, electric piano, and pairs of Moogs and Mellotrons, while he also employs a harpsichord, ARP, and Church organ.
Wakeman devised the concept for The Six Wives Of Henry VIII after he read a book about Henry VIII in an airport. Its six tracks represents Henry’s six wives, with Wakeman attempting to express the musical character of each in a song. This concept occasionally seems a little tenuous, although there are certainly tangible reference points; Henry’s flirtatious wives ‘Anne Boelyn’ and ‘Catherine Howard’ both have moments of exuberance in their themes, before ending mournfully as Henry had them beheaded; ‘Anne Boelyn’ ends with a musical quotation from the hymn ‘The Day Thou Gavest Lord Has Ended’. ‘Jane Seymour’, who died after giving birth to Henry’s only son, has a sorrowful theme, while ‘Catherine Parr’, a favourite wife who outlived Henry, ends the album on a triumphant note.
If you have trouble remembering which wife is which, there is a pattern: Divorced, Executed, Died, Divorced, Executed, Lived. Incidentally, Henry VIII executing/divorcing his wives for bearing the wrong sort of baby (i.e. girls) and/or for barrenness is ludicrous when (a) it’s the male that determines the gender of the baby and (b) the man was by all accounts riddled with syphilis. If nothing else, The Six Wives Of Henry VIII has an educational back sleeve that profiles each of the wives.
‘Catherine of Aragon’ is a nice concise opener, while ‘Anne Boelyn’ launches into ragtime. ‘Catherine Howard’ and ‘Catherine Parr’ both have memorable central themes; the former mournful, and the latter bombastic. ‘Jane Seymour’ breaks the mould most significantly with an organ dominated performance. ‘Anne of Cleves’ is the least interesting piece, which seems appropriate as she seems to be the least interesting wife.
Wakeman isn’t about to be mentioned in the same breath as Bach and Mozart, but I find The Six Wives Of Henry VIII highly entertaining.