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

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

Atween c1430 an c1750 — a time that comprehends twa muisical eras scholars caas the Renaissance an Baroque periods — Europe’s kirks an royal courts wis the patrons o ‘airt’ (or ‘clessical’) muisic. Tak, for an instance, the liturgical muisic o the Renaissance, like the Messes 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 composer 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 in 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 maks up Scotland’s history — the mixter-maxter 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. Syne 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. Aa 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 caas the Medieval period. The Saunt Andras Muisic Beuk is a muckle cairn o kirk muisic, maistly frae Notre Dame in Pairis, copied some time aboot 1230–50. The’r a nummer o muisical pieces in the manuscript jaloused tae hiv been composed in St Andras an-aa. Atour frae the 13t century, the’r a hymn in the Laitin tae celebrate Princess Magret’s waddin tae King Eric o Norrowa in 1281. It’s thocht tae hae been written by 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 in 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 in 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 in the airts til his court. We ken, tae, that muisic played a central pairt in chaipel services in the newly-foondit universities o Saunt Andras, Glesca an Aiberdeen in the 15t century. But binna a wheen orrals frae Arbroath, an twa scrieved-on sclates fund in a medieval cundie at Paisley Abbey, the’r naething o the period that survives.

Aa in aa, while no muckle is extant frae afore the 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 composers tae big on.

Muisic Makars?

It wis in 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 — aatho 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 in the 16t century nor we dae aboot earlier times. Maist namely amang composers o this period is Robert Carver (c1484–c1568). The Carver Choirbeuk (or ‘Scoun Antiphoner’), that comprehends his extant warks, is a byous pose o muisic that wis forgotten, less or mair, for centuries, till it wis set furth in full in 1959.

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

20t century scholars sic as Kenneth Elliott haes brocht Carver’s Messes 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 in 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 Mess Dum sacrum mysterium micht be the aesome maist byous achievement o Scots Renaissance cultur. Strang wirds. Thocht tae hae been composed 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 in the Spotify playlist linkit til that 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 by D. James Ross

Carver wis in 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 composers wis keepit on haund. Like his faither, Jeames played the lute, an he wis a fine sicht-reader at the singin an aa. 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. Composers sic as John Fethy wrate sangs that wis inspired by 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 come back 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 composers 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 composer 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 composer 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 caad in muisical terms ‘polyphonic’; that is, comprisin twa or mair independent (vyce) pairts (an kent at the time by the name o ‘musick fyne’). The reformers wis haein nane o it, derogatin the style as “prophaine” an “filthie.” Muisical instruments — maist o aa 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 composin byous warks that is unco weel-regairdit the day (sic as his maist weel-kent Mess Missa Papae Marcelli, thocht tae hae been written in 1562). Ane o the affcomes o aa the Reformation stour in Scotland is that the day we hae comparatively little in the wey o interestin muisic frae the time: juist a curn sangs, a wheen dances an a haundfu o instrumental warks. Aamaist 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.

By aa 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 composers — 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 Out of all Ancient Doctours of Music (c1580). The treatise, written in Scots, wis ettelt at teachin students the airt o composing. Image taen frae Musick Fyne by D. James Ross.

It follaes that in the dreich post-1560 environs there wisna the demand for skeely sangsters an polyphonic composers ony mair. Mony o the bigger Scots kirks haed lang haen ‘Sang Schules’ that learnt laddies skeels sic as organ-playing, pairt-singing an composing, an efter the Reformation the scuils suffert. The dwynin o muisic makkin in the years follaein the Reformation wisna a state o affairs that could be tholed for lang, tho, an Jeames VI (rang 1567–1625) declared in 1579: “[T]he art of musik and singing […] is almaist decayit and sall schortly decay without 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 Out of all Ancient Doctours of Music (c1580). It’s a treatise that is mintit at teachin students the airt o composing. Ither warks that haes survived frae Jeames VI’s time include the ootpit o William Kinloch. Aa 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 — declared: “[T]he art of musik and singing […] is almaist decayit and sall schortly decay without tymous remeid be providit.”
Maugre Jeames VI’s ettles, houiver, the fundamentalist naitur o the Scots reformers yet limitit the scowth o composers. They warna able tae floorish as did their contemporars Thomas Tallis an William Byrd in England, aft-times findin theirsels fouterin wi psalm tuins insteid o winnin forrit wi their airt. Ower a hunder psalms, hermonised by a sweirt David Peebles, is collectit in the Wode Pairtbeuks, that we’r chancy eneuch tae hae in oor possession the day. The pairtbeuks — pitten thegither by Tammas Wode, vicar o Saunt Andras — haes intil them warks by a nummer o composers, an includes motets an ither saucrit warks in 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 by 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, composer Duncan Burnett scrieved a nummer o warks for keybuird that’s extant the day. Aa in aa, tho, efter the loss o the court, hamelt composition in Scotland dwyned 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 composer Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713), an produced a wheen warks early on in his career. The scriever o Clerk’s entry in the Grove pits forrit the cantata Odo di mesto intorno as Clerk’s best. The first performance o it wis led by nane ither than Corelli himsel in 1698. At the hinder end, tho, Clerk’s potential as a composer 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 in 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 in 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 tae an extent been forgotten. In 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 aa 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 in the coorse o my speirings, the muisic produced here in the Renaissance an Baroque periods is gey aften gallus, furthie, an firmly steidit in 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.

This airticle wis last updatit on 27 November 2023.


I’v pitten thegither a Spotify playlist o muisic by the Scots Renaissance an Baroque composers mentiont abuin. Listen here (Spotify accoont required).

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

Scots-til-English glossar

composer composer; daeins activity; fouterin wasting time on; fouthie abundant; furthie hospitable to outside influences; richt sair opprest grievously oppressed; haudin gaun continuation; maugre despite; kirk-fowk congregation; kythe come up, appear; mim restrained; ongauns goings-on; owerance control, oversight; pose cache, valuable collection; quairs written works; quirkie complex; raings rates; scart scrap; scowth scope, freedom to express oneself; siller money; skeely skilled; speirer researcher; speirings research; stamagaster great disappointment, unpleasant surprise; stour strife, conflict; sweirt reluctant; threaps contends; wysins guidance