BYRD INTERNATIONAL SINGERS 2019
July 27 - August 3, 2019
This album features Renaissance music from Scotland and England by composers Robert Carver (c. 1485–1570), Andrew Blackhall (1535–1609), David Peebles (fl. 1530–1576), Robert Johnson (c. 1470–1560), John Angus (fl. 1562–1595), John Nesbett (d. 1488), and John Taverner (c. 1490–1545).
Unfortunately, we know very little of Robert Carver’s life. We know that Carver was a Scottish Canon regular and composer who spent much of his life at Scone Abbey. Carver joined the Augustinian community at Scone until about 1559, when the abbey was destroyed by Protestant Reformers. By examining examples of Carver’s signature found in a charter book for the abbey, we know he was also the scribe for the Carver Choirbook, which contains all of his surviving compositions including the celebratory Marian motet Gaude flore virginali for five voices and the 19-part O bone Jesu. Some historians believe it was written for James IV, who atoned constantly over the course of his life for trying to overthrow his father, James III (who eventually was murdered by a group of rebels). Some think James IV commissioned O bone Jesu as part of that atonement. Opening delicately with only two voices, Carver expands to incorporate the entire 19-voice choir in the span of only 30 seconds. This opening, which evokes images of a sunrise, is one of the most beautiful moments in the repertoire.
Carver’s Missa Dum sacrum mysterium was composed in 1513 for the feast day of Saint Michael. In 1513, James IV was unexpectedly killed in the Battle of Flodden Field. In the hopes of easing post-battle political turmoil, a coronation mass was quickly held for his infant son, James V, not yet 2 years old. Carver’s Missa Dum sacrum mysterium was likely sung at the event, as it was close enough to the feast of St. Michael’s day.
The pieces in English, Psalm 68 and 149, Of mercy and of judgement both, and The Lord’s Prayer, are from the Wode Psalter, a collection of music assembled by Thomas Wode, a former monk who lived and worked in St. Andrews after the Protestant Reformation in Scotland (1559–1560). The Reformation dramatically changed the way composers wrote music. Instead of long, melismatic phrases, and polyphonic textures in Latin, composers began writing in English and with more homophonic textures in order to communicate the meaning of the text more directly.
Robert Johnson is considered Scotland’s greatest composer after Robert Carver. A priest and composer from Duns in the Scottish Borders, he apparently moved to England in the early 1530s for religious reasons. He wrote only sacred music and among his few surviving works is the simple Marian motet Gaude Maria virgo for four voices.
It is unclear exactly how the English pieces made their way into the Carver Choirbook, especially knowing how complicated and tense England-Scotland relations were at the time. Some interesting speculations: Carver could have had access to a manuscript now lost to us, something similar to the Eton Choirbook, or maybe he befriended an English musician and chose his favorite learned pieces to be included in Carver Choirbook. In 1503, the 13 year old Princess Margaret (sister of Henry VIII), was wed to James IV, King of Scotland (21 years her senior). They were married by proxy in their respective cities. The Princess eventually journeyed to Scotland where they were married in person with great pomp in Edinburgh. The massive mobile court that accompanied the Princess most certainly included musical manuscripts and musicians, which could have made their way into the Carver Choirbook.
No matter how the English motets made their way into the choirbook, they were equally impressive, especially John Nesbett’s Magnificat. John Nesbett was a master of the Lady Chapel choir at Canterbury cathedral between 1473 and 1487. His spectacular setting of the Magnificat for five voices also appears in the Eton Choirbook.
Perhaps the music of John Taverner, though he is not represented in the Carver Choirbook, was also present in Scotland at this time. He was, after all, one of the most important English composers of the first half of the 16th century. His music connects the complex, florid style of the Eton Choirbook composers of the late 15th century (e.g., William Cornysh, John Browne) with the simpler, imitative style of the later mid-16th century composers—Thomas Tallis and John Sheppard. O splendor gloriae represents Taverner’s later style. The systematic use of imitation reflects the gradual trend away from an abstract melismatic style. This prayer motet to Jesus (Jesus antiphon) and the Holy Trinity alternates passages for full choir with passages for solo voices.
The disc ends with a gorgeous love song by contemporary Scottish composer James MacMillan (b. 1959) set to a poem by Robert Burns. A folk-like melody traverses over sustained chords in the lower parts – reminiscent of bagpipes – as Burns tells the story of “a gallant weaver” offering his hand in marriage.
Margaret is a Soprano that performs regularly with the Byrd Ensemble, and is the course manager for the group's annual international Renaissance course.
Also available on:
01 Robert Carver - O bone Jesu a19
02 Robert Carver - Gaude flore virginali
03 Robert Carver - "Gloria" from Missa Dum sacrum mysterium a10
04 Andrew Blackhall - Of mercy and of judgement both
05 Andrew Blackhall - Psalm 68
06 David Peebles - Psalm 149
07 John Angus - The Lord's Prayer
08 Robert Johnson - Gaude Maria virgo
09 John Nesbett - Magnificat
10 John Taverner - O splendor gloriae
11 James MacMIllan - The Gallant Weaver
BYRD INTERNATIONAL SINGERS 2019
Liz Reed Hawk
Tilman Von Delft
Image of the Carver manuscript used by permission of the National Library of Scotland Adv.MS.5.1.15(101) folio 54r, Mass ’L’homme armé.