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Soonds o the kirk and coort: early muisic in Scotland

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

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

For maist o the period in history oo are concerned wi, Scotland wis yet a free-staundin kintrae, and for aboot hauf the time haed a royal coort steidit in Edinburrae. As a body that lang syne did a bit study o early European airt muisic, it gart me wunner what wis gaun on in Scotland at yon time. The subject o liturgical or coort muisic in oor airt o the warld haed niver kythed in the year I studied the muisic o the period, and—I maun admít—I’d niver thocht tae leuk intae it afore nou.

Fasherie and raivelment

We dinnae hae in oor aucht a great fouth o written muisic frae the time. This is in pairt doun tae the mixter-maxter o polítical, relígious and social dree that maks up Scotland’s history, that did nae fauvours tae the biggin up and haudin gaun o Scots cultur, muisic includit. The 14t century, for example, saw Scotland 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. And o coorse in 1603 the Union o the Crouns gart the Scots coort flit sooth tae London, takkin wi it cultural daeins and airtin.

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

A page frae the Inchcolm Antiphoner, c1340.
A page frae the Inchcolm Antiphoner, c1340, ane o the earliest blads o Scots muisic we hae. Edinburrae Versity

In Scotland, the earliest scrievit muisic that survives belangs the 13t century: 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-aw. Atour frae the 13t century, the’r a hymn in the Laitin tae celebrate Princess Magret’s waddin tae Kíng Eric o Norrowa in 1281. It’s thocht tae hae been written bi a Friar Maurice that steyed in Norrowa and that wis likely a Scot. But nocht mair nor that haes survived.

Siclike, no muckle is kent aboot either coort or saucrit muisic in the 14t and 15t centuries. Doutless some liturgical blads wad hae been tint tae weir wi England (the Border abbeys, for example, wis connacht and re-biggit in the coorse o the weirs). Ae manuscript oo 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 and Flanders tae gie wysins in the airts tae his coort. We ken, tae, that muisic played a central pairt in chaipel services in the newly-foondit versities o Saunt Andras, Glesca and Aiberdeen in the 15t century. But ither than a wheen orrals frae Arbroath, and twa scrieved-on sclates fund in a medieval cundie at Paisley Abbey, the’r naething o the period that survives.

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

Muisic Makars?

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

Weel, happily oo ken a bittie mair anent the muisic o Scotland in the 16t century nor oo 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.

20t century scholars sic as Kenneth Elliott haes brocht Carver’s Messes and motets oot frae the mirk and tae the tent o praisent-day clessical muisic listeners. It’s clear tae us nou that Carver’s wark is o the heichmaist calibre, and compares brawly wi the warks o his mair weel-kent contemporars in continental Europe. In his entry anent Renaissance and Reformation muisic in The Oxford Companion to Scottish History, Jamie Reid Baxter raings Carver’s genius alangside that o his Makar contemporars Henryson, Dunbar and Dooglas. And 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, this ten-vyce wark is unco in its scale and skeeliness. (Ye can hear it in full in the Spotify playlist linkit tae that the fit o this post, as weel as on YouTube.)

A bit frae Robert Carver’s Mess ‘Dum sacrum mysterium’
The Carver Choirbeuk, wrocht in Scotland some time durin the first hauf of the 16t century, is a fouthie cairn o vocal polyphony bi Robert Carver and ithers. Here we see a bit frae Carver’s Mess Dum sacrum mysterium. National Líbrar o Scotland

Carver wis in the employ o the coort o Jeames IV (rang 1488–1513), a clarsach, keybuird and lute player hissel. The ring o Jeames V (frae 1513 till 1542) wis siclike a sonsie time for Scots coort muisic. His royal coort mintit tae emulate that o Henry VIII and Leezabeth I in England, and a nummer o professional muisicians and composers wis keepit on haund. Like his faither, Jeames played the lute, and he wis a fine sicht-reader at the singin an-aw. He on twa occasions mairied French princesses—the seicont bein Marie de Guise, mither o Mary, Queen o Scots—and at the time French cultur wis weel seen in Scotland. Composers sic as John Fethy wrate sangs inspired bi the French chanson and motet styles.

Composer Robert Carver’s wark is o the heichmaist calibre, and compares brawly wi the warks o his mair weel-kent contemporars in continental Europe

Queen Mary (rang 1542–1567) wis hersel a muisician, bein a player o the lute and virginals, and a bonnie sangster as weel. Mary wis born in Lithgae but spent the stairt o her ring in France, and 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’ and ‘violaris’, and muisicians frae England and Italy wad frequent the coort. A nummer o composers wis active durin Mary’s ring, includin Andra Blackhall, John Black, Andra Kemp and yon John Fethy. A nummer o anonymous sangs haes survived, tae, and 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 oo can say is his for shuir is the fine My Lord of Marche Paven (1584). He wis a freend o the poyet Alexander Montgomerie, and wad likely hae been a memmer (alang wi Montgomerie) o Jeames VI’s ‘Castalian Band’ o poyets and 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 tae a heid in Scotland in 1560, and the reformed Kirk haedna the time for muisic they regairdit as ower fantoush. The style kenspeckle in contemporar Catholic worship is what’s cawed ‘polyphonic’ in muisical speak; that is, made up o twa or mair independent (vyce) pairts, and kent at the time bi the name o ‘Musick Fyne’. The reformers wis haein nane o it, derogatin the style as ‘prophaine’ and ‘filthie’. Muisical instruments—maist o aw the kirk organ—wis thocht on as bein associate wi the Deil, and a stap wis pitten tae the prentin o secular muisic. And for tae win at their braider polítical ettles, the reformers set aboot wrackin Scotland’s muisical cultur and infrastructur, includin the connachin o kirk biggins and the manuscripts and prentit muisic they hoosed.

This wis the selsame time that Palestrina in Italy wis composin byous warks that’s 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 aw the Reformation stour in Scotland is that the day we hae gey little in the wey o interestin muisic frae the time: juist a curn sangs, a wheen dances and a haundfu o instrumental warks. Awmaist the hale o the byordinar muisic líbrar o the Chaipel Royal (an important choral group steidit in Stirlin) is tint tae us. The líbrar held fower antiphoners and mony ither cairns o manuscripts and prentit muisic. It’s a ferlie the Carver beuk haes survived.

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. Brítish Líbrar

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

It follaes that in the dreich environs efter 1560, there wisna the demand for skeely sangsters and polyphonic composers ony mair. Mony o the bigger Scots kirks haed lang haen ‘Sang Schules’ that learnt laddies skeels sic as organ-playin, pairt-singin and composin, and 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 ower lang, houiver. In 1579 Jeames VI (rang 1567–1625) requestit that something be duin aboot it: in the November o that year a royal decree was pitten oot that ettelt at rebiggin the disjaskit sang scuils, warnin that “the art of musik and singing […] is almaist decayit and sall schortly decay without tymous remeid be providit[.]” Follaein the act’s passin in the Pairlament, the scuils, nou unner the owerance o the burghs, gaed on tae win back a guid bit tint grund. Ae wark oo hae frae the time is The Art of Music, Collecit Out of all Ancient Doctours of Music (c1580). It’s a treatise mintit at teachin students the airt o composin. Ither warks that haes survived frae Jeames VI’s time include the ootpit o William Kinloch. Aw his extant warks is for the keybuird, and ye can check them oot on Spotify.

A royal decree in 1579 warned that ‘the art of musik and singing is almaist decayit and sall schortly decay without tymous remeid be providit.’

Nowithstaundin Jeames VI’s ambítions, the fundamentalist naitur o the Scots reformers yet límitit the scowth o composers. They warna able tae floorish as did their contemporars Thomas Tallis and William Byrd in England, aft-times finndin theirsels fouterin wi psalm tuins insteid o winnin forrit wi their airt. Ower a hunder psalms, hermonised bi a sweirt Dauvit Peebles, is collectit in the Wode Pairtbeuks, that oo are chancy eneuch tae hae in oor aucht the day. The pairtbeuks—pitten thegither bi Tammas Wode, vicar o Saunt Andras—haes intil them warks bi a nummer o composers, and includes motets and ither saucrit warks in the Hie Renaissance style.

Twa pages frae the Wode Pairtbeuk
Twa pages frae the Wode Pairtbeuks, annotatit (in the reid ink) in Scots. The pairtbeuks comprises 16t century muisic frae Scotland, England and continental Europe, includin 106 psalm settins and ither warks bi Dauvit Peebles. Edinburrae Versity

Union o the Crouns

Jeames VI becam Jeames I o England in 1603 and the royal coort flittit frae Edinburrae tae London, 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 tradítion, 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. Aw in aw, tho, efter the loss o the coort, 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 and composer Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713), and 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 bi nane ither than Corelli hissel 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. He wad in fact end up wi his signatur on the Treaty o Union wi England. Speakin o whilk…

The end o an auld sang

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

And sae the day we hae a state o affairs whaur the airt muisic o Renaissance and Baroque Scotland haes tae a great 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 awmaist aw else. But juist as oo maunna forget the warks o Makars like Dunbar and Dooglas, sae we should tak braider tent o Scotland’s muisical history. As I’v learnt in the coorse o scrievin this airticle, the muisic written here in the Renaissance and Baroque periods is gey aften gallus, furthie, and firmly steidit in the cosmopolitan European context. And frae it oo can learn muckle anent Scotland’s bygane, baith airtistic and polítical. Ay, it’s sad no a hale lot o it survived the Reformation, but what oo div hae is weel wirth luggin intae.


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

And here’s a timeline (PDF) that pits events, composers and ithers in historical context. I uised it tae help keep me richt while speirin and scrievin.

Scots-tae-English glossar

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; orrals odd scraps; scowth scope, freedom to express oneself; siller money; skeely skilled; speirer researcher; stamagaster great disappointment, unpleasant surprise; stour strife, conflict; sweirt reluctant; threaps contends; wysins guidance