Clap enter tae see results or esc tae cancel.

Soonds o the kirk an court: early airt muisic in Scotland

Whither in Italy, Germany, Fraunce or England, muisic bi gate o court an kirk wis floorishin aw ower Europe i the Renaissance an Baroque periods. But what o Scotland? Wis it aw juist bagpipes, reels an fowk sangs? I pit on my speirer’s bunnet an haed a bit leuk . . .

Atween c1430 an c1750 — a time that comprehends twa muisical eras scholars caws the Renaissance an Baroque periods — Europe’s kirks an royal courts wis the patrons o ‘airt’ (or ‘clessical’) muisic. Tak, for instance, the liturgical muisic o the Renaissance, like the Masses an motets o Italy’s Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c1525–94). Or, efter in Germany, the fouthie ootpit o J. S. Bach (1685–1750), that’s kent as the heidmaist componer o the Baroque period. Siccan dargs couldna hae been wrocht withoot the siller o the estaiblishment.

For maist o the time period we’r concernt wi Scotland wis yet a free-staundin kintra, an for aboot hauf o it haed a royal court steidit in Edinburgh. It gart me wunner (as a body that lang syne did a bit study o early European airt muisic) what wis gaun on in Scotland at yon time. The subject o liturgical or court muisic in oor airt o the warld haed niver kythed i the year I studied the muisic o the period, an — I maun admit — I’d niver thocht tae leuk intil it afore nou.

Fasherie an raivelment

The naitur o events that mak up Scotland’s history — the mixtur-maxtur o political, religious an social dree — haes meant the extant lave o muisical ongauns frae earlier times isna ower fouthie. The 14t century wis a time whan Scotland wis fechtin for its independence. Than the Protestant Reformation hauf-gates throu the 16t century gied us a dour national kirk that haedna muckle time for sic joys as muisic. An o coorse in 1603 the union o the crouns gart the Scots court flit sooth tae Lunnon, takkin wi it cultural daeins an airtin. Aw this did nae favours tae the haudin gaun an development o Scots cultur, muisic includit.

But what daes survive o, an what div we ken in general anent, early Scots airt muisic?

In Scotland the earliest scrievit muisic that survives belangs the 13t century, durin a time muisic scholars caws the Medieval period. The Saunt Andras Muisic Beuk is a muckle cairn o kirk muisic manuscripts copied some time aroond 1230–50. It haes intil’t a guid feck o muisic frae Nostre Dame in Pairis, an a nummer o warks jaloused tae be bi (unkent) Scots componers. As we’ll see, the wark o French componers wis tae influence the muisic o Scotland oot-throu the Renaissance. Atour frae the 13t century, the’r a hymn i the Laitin tae celebrate Princess Margaret’s waddin tae King Eric o Norrowa in 1281. It’s thocht tae hae been written bi a Friar Maurice that steyed in Norrowa an that wis likely a Scot. But nocht mair nor that haes survived.

A page frae the Inchcolm Antiphoner, c1340, ane o the earliest blads o Scots muisic we hae. Image credit: Edinburgh University (CC BY 3.0).

Siclike, no muckle is kent aboot aither court or saucrit muisic i the 14t an 15t centuries. Doutless some liturgical blads wad hae been tint tae war wi England (the Border abbeys, for example, wis connacht an re-biggit i the coorse o the wars). Ae manuscript we div hae is the Inchcolm Antiphoner frae the 14t century, that comprises muisic o the Celtic kirk. A bittie efter, it’s kent that Jeames I (rang 1406–1437) invitit scholars frae England an Flanders tae gie wysins i the airts til his court. We ken, tae, that muisic played a central pairt in chaipel services i the newly-foondit universities o Saunt Andras, Glesca an Aiberdeen i the 15t century. But binna the antrin scart an a puckle scrieved-on sclates frae Paisley Abbey, the’r naething o the period that survives.

Aw in aw, while no muckle is extant pre-16t century, we can jalouse there maun hae been some kind o national compositional tradition in Scotland that wad hae providit a foond for later componers tae big on.

Muisic Makars?

It wis i the late-15t an intae the 16t centuries that Scotland’s medieval Makars wis tae the fore in Scots cultural life. Poyets sic as Robert Henryson, William Dunbar an Gavin Douglas wrate the maist weel-regairdit verse that — awtho tae modren lugs no sae kenspeckle as the warks o Robert Burns — is still kent an in prent the day. Daes Scotland hae a muisicial ootpit that can staund proodly alangside the byordinar quairs o the Makars?

Weel, happily we ken a bittie mair anent the muisic o Scotland i the 16t century nor we dae aboot earlier times. Maist namely amang componers o this period is Robert Carver (c1484–c1568). The Carver Choirbeuk, that comprehends his extant warks, is a byous pose o muisic that wis less or mair forgotten till fairly recent-like.

A page frae the Carver Choirbeuk
A page frae the Carver Choirbeuk, a fouthie cairn o vocal polyphony bi Robert Carver an ithers.

20t century scholars sic as Kenneth Elliott haes brocht Carver’s Masses an motets oot frae the mirk an tae the tent o praisent-day clessical muisic listeners. It’s clear til us nou that Carver’s wark is o the heichmaist calibre, an compares brawly wi the warks o his mair weel-kent contemporars in continental Europe. In his entry anent Renaissance an Reformation muisic i The Oxford Companion to Scottish History, Jamie Reid Baxter raings Carver’s genius alangside that o his Makar contemporars Henryson, Dunbar an Douglas. An in his 1993 beuk Musick Fyne muisicologist D. James Ross threaps that Carver’s Mass Dum sacrum mysterium micht be the aesome maist byous achievement o Scots Renaissance cultur. Strang wirds. Thocht tae hae been compone’t in 1506 whan Carver wis juist 22 year auld, the said ten-vyce wark is unco in its scale an skeeliness. (Ye can hear it in full i the Spotify playlist linkit til at the fit o this post, as weel as on YouTube.)

The openin o Robert Carver’s motet, ‘O bone Jesu’
The openin o Robert Carver’s motet, O bone Jesu. Image taen frae Musick Fyne bi D. James Ross

Carver wis i the employ o the court o Jeames IV (rang 1488–1513), himsel a clarsach, keybuird an lute player. The ring o Jeames V (frae 1513 till 1542) wis siclike a sonsie time for Scots court muisic. His royal court mintit tae emulate that o Henry VIII an Leezabeth I in England, an a nummer o professional muisicians an componers wis keepit on haund. Like his faither, Jeames played the lute, an he wis a fine sicht-reader at the singin an aw. He on twa occasions mairit French princesses — the seicont bein Marie de Guise, mither o Mary, Queen o Scots — an at the time French cultur wis weel seen in Scotland. Componers sic as John Fethy wrate sangs that wis inspire’t bi the French chanson an motet styles.

Queen Mary (rang 1542–1567) wis hersel a muisician, bein a player o the lute an virginals, an a bonnie sangster as weel. Mary wis born in Lithgae but spent the stairt o her ring in Fraunce, an didna retour tae Scotland till 1561, bringin wi her mair French muisical influence. Mary haed a nummer o muisicians in her employ, includin a group o ‘sangsteris’ an ‘violaris,’ an muisicians frae England an Italy wad frequent the court. A nummer o componers wis active durin Mary’s ring, includin Andro Blackhall, John Black, Andro Kemp an the forementiont John Fethy. A nummer o anonymous sangs haes survived, tae, an ye can lug intae them on Spotify.

Mary’s muisical servitor wis Jeames Lauder (c1535–c1592), a componer o guid repute. The only extant wark we can say is his for shuir is the fine My Lord of Marche Paven (1584). He wis a freend o the poyet Alexander Montgomerie, an wad likely hae been a memmer (alang wi Montomerie) o Jeames VI’s ‘Castalian Band’ o poyets an muisicians. He micht weel hae been the componer o settins o a wheen Montgomerie poyems sic as In throu the windoes of myn ees.

Richt sair opprest

The Reformation cam til a heid in Scotland in 1560, an the reformt Kirk haedna the time for muisic they regairdit as ower fantoush. The style kenspeckle in contemporar Catholic worship is what’s cawed in muisical terms ‘polyphonic’; that is, comprisin twa or mair independent (vyce) pairts (an kent at the time bi the name o ‘musick fyne’). The reformers wis haein nane o it, derogatin the style as “prophaine” an “filthie.” Muisical instruments — maist o aw the kirk organ — wis thocht on as bein associate wi the Deil, an a stap wis pitten tae the prentin o secular muisic. An for tae win at their braider political ettles, the reformers set aboot wrackin Scotland’s muisical cultur an infrastructur, includin the connachin o kirk biggins an the manuscripts an prentit muisic they hoosed.

This wis the selsame time that Palestrina in Italy wis componin byous warks that is unco weel-regairdit the day (sic as his maist weel-kent Mass Missa Papae Marcelli, thocht tae hae been written in 1562). Ane o the affcomes o aw the Reformation stour in Scotland is that the day we hae comparatively little i the wey o interestin muisic frae the time: juist a curn sangs, a wheen dances an a haundfu o instrumental warks. Awmaist the hale o the byordinar muisic librar o the Chaipel Royal (a important choral group steidit in Stirlin) is tint til us. The librar held fower antiphoners an mony ither cairns o manuscripts an prentit muisic. It’s a ferlie the Carver beuk haes survived.

Bi aw accoonts the Reformation wis a disaster for Scots cultur. Houiver, it’s no like there wisna ony saucrit muisic efter John Knox an his reformers haed born the gree: the Kirk did mak uiss o Lutheran chorale melodies an psalm tuins frae Fraunce an England, an ye haed a nummer o componers — sic as Andro Kemp, David Peebles an John Angus — that teuk on the darg o settin thir melodies, alang wi new anes, in a semple, chordal wey, conform tae the contemporar European prattick. The ettle wis tae mak them easy for the kirk-fowk tae unnerstaund an sing alang til. The douce an mim arrangements, houiver, wis a warld awa frae the quirkie an airtfu polyphony o the pre-Reformation Kirk.

A page frae the Art of Music
A page frae The Art of Music, Collecit Oot of all Ancient Doctours of Music (1580). The treatise wis ettelt at teachin students the airt o componin. Image taen frae Musick Fyne bi D. James Ross.

It follaes that i the dreich post-1560 environs there wisna the demand for skeely sangsters an polyphonic componers ony mair. Mony o the bigger Scots kirks haed lang haen ‘Sang Schules’ that learnt laddies skeels sic as organ-playin, pairt-singin an componin, an efter the Reformation the scuils suffert. The dwynin o muisic makkin i thir post-Reformation years wisna a state o affairs that could be thole’t for lang, tho, an Jeames VI (rang 1567–1625) declare’t in 1579: “[T]he art of musik and singing … is almaist decayit and sall schortly decay withoot tymous remeid be providit.” This royal decree ettelt at rebiggin the disjaskit sang scuils, an follaein its passin in Pairlament, the scuils, nou unner the owerance o the burghs, gaed on tae win back a guid bit tint grund. Ae wark we hae frae the time is The Art of Music, Collecit Oot of all Ancient Doctours of Music (1580). It’s a treatise that is mintit at teachin students the airt o componin. Ither warks that haes survived frae Jeames VI’s time include the ootpit o William Kinloch. Aw his extant warks is for the keybuird, an ye can check them oot on Spotify.

King Jeames VI (richt) an his mither Mary
King Jeames VI (richt) an his mither, Mary. Jeames’ royal decree o 1579 — anent the awfu state o muisic makkin in Scotland — declare’t: “[T]he art of musik and singing … is almaist decayit and sall schortly decay withoot tymous remeid be providit.”
In maugre o Jeames VI’s ettles, houiver, the fundamentalist naitur o the Scots reformers yet limitit the scowth o componers. They warna able tae floorish as did their contemporars Thomas Tallis an William Byrd in England, aft-times findin themsels fouterin wi psalm tuins insteid o winnin forrit wi their airt. Ower a hunder psalms, hermonised bi a sweirt David Peebles, is collectit i the Wode Pairtbeuks, that we’r chancy eneuch tae hae in oor possession the day. The pairtbeuks — pitten thegither bi Tammas Wode, vicar o Saunt Andras — haes intil them warks bi a nummer o componers, an includes motets an ither saucrit warks i the Hie Renaissance style.

Psalm 150 frae the Wode Pairtbeuk
The tenor pairt o Psalm 150 frae the Wode Pairtbeuks. The pairtbeuks comprises 16t century muisic frae Scotland, England an continental Europe, includin 106 psalm settins an ither warks bi David Peebles. Image credit: Edinburgh University.

Union o the crouns

Jeames VI becam Jeames I o England in 1603 an the royal court flittit frae Edinburgh tae Lunnon, lea’in muisicians in Scotland in a swither as tae the wey forrit. While the loss o sic a important patron wis a stamagaster, the muisical tradition, as weel as a puckle sang scuils, did haud gaun for a while. At the Glesca sang scuil, for example, componer Duncan Burnett scrieved a nummer o warks for keybuird that’s extant the day. Aw in aw, tho, efter the loss o the court, hamelt composition in Scotland dwyne’t for the time bein.

Ae muisician durin the Baroque period wi guid potential wis John Clerk o Penicuik (1676–1755). He spent time as a student o the weel-kent Italian violin player an componer Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713), an produced a wheen warks early on in his career. The scriever o Clerk’s entry i the Grove pits forrit the cantata Odo di mesto intorno as Clerk’s best. The first performance o it wis led bi nane ither than Corelli himsel in 1698. At the hinder end, tho, Clerk’s potential as a componer wis tae be left unfulfilt, as he gaed intae politics in his mid-20s.

The end o an auld sang

Scotland tint its pairlament an its independence in 1707 wi the passin o the Union wi England Act. The Union brocht wi it social an economic stability that helpit forder muisical daeins in society, includin composition: muisicians sic as William McGibbon, Jeames Oswald an Chairles McLean produced sonatas, symphonies an ither warks i the contemporar international style. But it wis a sair fecht tae haud gaun what wi the want o siller an Scotland nae langer haein the international identity it haed i the 15t an 16t centuries. Fowk muisic — raither nor airt muisic — wad prevail, aiblins in pairt born oot o the antisyzygetic identity in post-Union Scotland, whaur fowk muisic wis thocht on as bein ‘mair Scots.’

An sae the day we hae a state o affairs whaur the airt muisic o Renaissance an Baroque Scotland haes been forgotten. I the een o the warld, Scots cultur haes come tae be thocht on as couthie, happit in tartan, the bellum o massed bagpipes drounin oot maist aw else. Juist as we maunna forget the warks o Makars like Dunbar an Douglas, sae we should tak braider tent o Scotland’s muisical history. As I’v learnt i the coorse o my speirins, the muisic produced here i the Renaissance an Baroque periods is gey aften gallus, furthie, an firmly steidit i the cosmopolitan European context. An frae it we can learn muckle aboot Scotland’s bygane, baith airtistic an political. Ay, it’s sad no a hale lot o it survived the Reformation, but what we div hae is weel wirth luggin intil.


I’v pitten thegither a Spotify playlist o muisic bi the Scots Renaissance an Baroque componers mentiont abuin. Listen here (Spotify accoont require’t).

An here’s a interactive timeline that pits events, componers an ithers in historical context, that I uised tae help keep me richt while speirin an scrievin. (Dates is whiles approximate.)

Scots-til-English glossar

ae one; aesome single; affcomes outcomes; aiblins perhaps; airt part; airtin direction; anent aboot, concerning; atour additionally; at the hinder end ultimately; bellum din; binna except, apart from; blads manuscripts, papers; born the gree truimphed; brawly finely; bygane past; byordinar extraordinary; byous exceptional, wonderful; cairn collection; chancy lucky; componer composer; comprehend include; connacht destroyed; couthie inoffensive; curn small number; daeins activity; darg the product of a given endeavour, or a piece of work, a job; derogatin decrying, disparaging; disjaskit dilapidated; douce sedate; dour severe, dull; dree trouble, struggle; dreich dreary, dull; dwynin waning; een eyes; ettle aim; fantoush flashy, fancy; fasherie trouble; ferlie wonder; flit move location; foond (‘foon(d)’) foondation; fouterin wasting time on; fouthie abundant; furthie hospitable to outside influences; gallus bold; gart made, compelled; gey very; guid feck o good number of; richt sair opprest grievously oppressed; happit wrapped, covered; haudin gaun continuation; in maugre o in spite of; jaloused surmised, thought; kenspeckle well known, recognisable; kirk-fowk congregation; kythe come up, appear; lave what is left over, the remainder; lug in listen; maun must; maunna must not; mim restrained; mintit aimed; mirk darkness; muckle much; nocht nothing; nor than; ongauns goings-on; oot-throu throughout; owerance control, oversight; pose cache, valuable collection; puckle few; quairs written works; quirkie complex; raings rates; raivelment disorder, confusion; re-biggit rebuilt; ring reign; a sair fecht tae haud gaun a struggle to keep going; sangster singer; saucrit sacred; scart scrap; sclates slates; scowth scope, freedom to express oneself; scrievit written; siccan such; siclike similarly; siller money; skeely skilled; skeeliness skillfulness, accomplishment; speirer researcher; speirins research; stamagaster great disappointment, unpleasant surprise; steidit based; stour strife, conflict; sweirt reluctant; swither fluster, state of uncertainty; tent notice; thole’t put up with, endured; threaps contends; tint lost; unco remarkable; wheen few; wrocht made, worked; wysins guidance