Review Summary: This is perhaps one of the most original and risky prog albums ever. It’s probably Wakeman’s least pretentious and still very ambitious and risky.
“The Six Wives Of Henry VIII” is the debut studio album of Rick Wakeman and was released in 1973. It’s true, if we don’t consider “Piano Vibrations” released in 1971 as his debut album. However, his contributions on that album were limited to performing as a session musician and he didn’t compose any of the tracks on it. Rick chose to participate on this album some members of his ex-band, the Strawbs, Cousins, Lambert and Cronk and of Yes, Squire, Bruford and White.
“The Six Wives Of Henry VIII” is a very ambitious and risky conceptual album inspired by the six wives of Henry VIII. As Wakeman said, the album is based around his interpretation of the musical characteristics of the wives of Henry VIII. Although, the style may not always be in keeping with their individual history, as Rick said. “The Six Wives Of Henry VIII” represents his personal conception of their characters in relation to the keyboard instruments. However, always was a mystery to me, why Wakeman doesn’t treats the ladies in the chronologically correct order on the album.
“Catherine Of Aragon”, the first wife, was married at the age of 16, to forge a stronger alliance between England and Spain. Catherine’s life at the side of Henry was mainly influenced by numerous miscarriages and the “inability” to give birth to a male heir. The marriage ends in divorce, which will never be accepted by Catherine, she died of cancer. Musically, the track has something dramatic, partly also hunted, chasing them from pregnancy to pregnancy. The quiet central part sounds then almost a little resignedly. It’s one of Rick’s most easily recognized pieces and it’s a classic.
“Anna Of Cleves”, the fourth wife, was strictly conservative educated, could embroider and sew, but dominated any foreign languages. She was probably not as good looking as Henry had assumed because of a portrait painting. After a few months, in which the king had again turned to other mistresses, the marriage was cancelled. Musically it’s more like a jazzy jam with a rock feel, with prominent guitars and drums. It’s more close to the usual Yes’ sound. The song writing might not be as strong as some other pieces on the album, but the energy here still makes of it a very exciting listening.
“Catherine Howard”, the fifth wife, about 30 years younger than Henry, had probably not too much fun with the king, which was perhaps why she had an affair with a valet, and was unceremoniously beheaded for adultery. Musically, Wakeman do a constant alternation between quiet parts, partly almost a little sad, and eruptive, defiant and rebellious moments. It’s a typical English track full of pastoral flourish, a high melodic voyage extremely expressive, with Strawbs giving a folk ambient to the track. It’s a truly successful adaptation that brings to my mind a vivacious young woman.
“Jane Seymour”, the third wife, gave birth to her husband, his only son, the future King Edward VI, but she died after a few days on puerperal fever. Later Henry said that Jane was the wife that he loved most of all his wives. Musically, it’s a very church organ sounding piece. It’s a classical symphonic piece composed for a church organ, the St. Giles Church in Cripplegate. It’s a fantastic piece where Wakeman demonstrates how great his virtuosity as a keyboardist. Here we can see clearly the influences of J. S. Bach. It reflects the calm, gentle demeanour that apparently characterised Jane.
“Anne Boleyn”, the second wife, was considered the most elegant and accomplished women at the court, bore him a daughter, the future Queen Elisabeth I. Anne wasn’t beloved, was ambitious and often jealous and made many enemies. When she didn’t give Henry a son, he let her to death on trumped accusations. Musically, the piece moves between the piano and the minimoog, showing the sophistication of Anne. The awesome choir from the first track makes another appearance. In the end, Wakeman plays a lovely piano rendition of the hymn “The Day Thou Gavest Lord Hath Ended”.
“Catherine Parr”, the sixth wife, was a Protestant and had modern religious views. She apparently soothed Henry’s temper, nursed him and brought the family together. Apparently she was seen as a stabilising mother figure. Musically, these traits come out in some places on the track, showing her role as the family stabilizer. It shows Rick’s keyboards prowess. The mellotron gives us a choir, lending to it a dreary feel and the synthesizers play the main theme. Rick drives the remainder of the track with inspiring piano and a happy organ section. It’s a grandiose ending for this album.
Conclusion: “The Six Wives Of Henry VIII” is a great album. It’s probably the Wakeman’s least pretentious and his best work, and in many aspects his most effective too. It’s a selection of six electronic tone paintings made with a multitude of keyboard instruments. All the material here is beautifully melodic and excitingly played and arranged, based on his view of the lives and perceived personalities of Henry VIII’s spouses. However, the album isn’t only about Wakeman. Rick also brought some excellent musicians along with him to complete his musical vision. So, the musicianship on the album isn’t exclusively focused on Wakeman. I really think that it should be part of every progressive rock collection.
Music was my first love.
John Miles (Rebel)