Thursday, April 2, 2015

Tregian's Ground by Anne Cuneo


The significance of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book to our musical canon is well known; the remarkable story of its copyist and compiler, Francis Tregian, less so. Born into Cornish Catholic nobility and plumb into the choppy waters of the Elizabethan Age, he must rely on his surpassing skill as a musician to survive. In this Prix des Libraires (Booksellers Prize) winning novel, Anne Cuneo deftly recreates the musician's journey across Renaissance Europe, which sees him befriending Shakespeare, swapping partitions with William Byrd and Monteverdi, and playing in the court of Henri IV of France. The result is as gripping as it is authentic: an epic, transcontinental choreography in which Europe's monarchs tussle with pretenders to their thrones, and ordinary people steer between allegiances to God, nation and family.


This novel is based on the life of Francis Tregian the younger, described as ‘A Cornish Recusant’ born during the reign of Elizabeth I. His family suffered for their faith and lost most of their estates. With his father imprisoned at The Fleet for refusing to convert, young Francis was send abroad to study at the Catholic seminary in Douai. Although a gentleman, Francis loved music and had an ear for languages, both of which helped him forge a life outside England.

I am not sure how closely the author stuck to his actual life, but Francis’s story is fascinating, in that this was an age when musical scores weren’t printed, but hand written, passed from hand to hand and could be controversial. Knowing and playing certain songs could get you into a lot of trouble.

He cared little for money, status or religion, although he stuck to his Catholic upbringing, never regarding it as an obstacle to love, friendships or earning a living.

I found it difficult not to like Francis, with his compassionate nature and his altruistic outlook.

Ms Cuneo’s Francis played the spinet, virginals and the organ like an angel. During his hard times when he had to keep his identity a secret, music was his comfort and he could earn a living making instruments or playing the organ in churches. In fact a good part of the story is about which musicians he met in the countries he visited with an emphasis on sharing musical scores which opened doors everywhere.

This novel was very long, mainly because the same theme is repeated throughout the story, but with different characters and countries. However, Francis is a worthy main character and I wanted the best for him, even when I felt he made the wrong choices.

I received a free copy of this novel in return for an honest review

Anita Davison author of ‘Royalist Rebel’ under the name Anita Seymour. Her latest venture is a Victorian cosy mystery scheduled for release in June 2015 from Robert Hale.
TWITTER: @AnitaSDavison

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