The European Sun: Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Scottish Language and Literature, University of Strathclyde, 1993

By Graham Caie; Roderick J. Lyall et al. | Go to book overview

JOHN PURSER


4. The Song of the Cherubim

I could have chosen many topics proper to this event. The wonderful music and words of Tobias Hume – now proven to be a Scot, recognised as such when he turned up begging for favours from Queen Anne in 1606, but with impeccable European credentials as a mercenary. The longed-for emergence of the superb keyboard music of William Kinloch, composed probably in the late sixteenth century, with its continental and English connections and the political significance of his Battle of Pavie in the court of James VI are but two examples. Instead I am whizzing through a few highlights of sacred music in mediaeval and renaissance Scotland.

The relationship between literature and music, so intimate in the past that composer and wordsmith were often one and the same person, is as intimate today only in the world of popular and traditional music and, as such, tends to be associated primarily with an oral rather than a written culture.

We all know that in medieval and renaissance times, that intimacy was just as evident in the written culture. I know Henryson claimed he could not sing a note, but Alexander Scott and, indeed James I are counter-examples. If we could find the lost compositions of James I we would have treasure indeed to fill the vast gaps in our sources for medieval music in Scotland. By the way, I am grateful to the conference for retaining those useful terms, medieval and renaissance, having been recently taken to task by an Oxford don for using them in my book on Scotland’s Music. I was tempted to write to him that one can only recognise perspective if one does not insist on squinting.

My title is The Song of the Cherubim and it is inspired by two particular pieces of Scottish music and their texts and contexts; both in Latin, one medieval, the other renaissance. One for solo voice, the other for a choir singing in ten parts. One anonymous, the other by Robert Carver. Europe will feature as that is part of the conference theme; and I intend to fulfil the promise of Professor Jack’s keynote address by displaying the post-medieval hierarchy of the musical stave while extracting us from the vile darkness and error of original sin in which it seemed to me the professor was positively wallowing. But I am going to start very much earlier with a quotation from the eleventh century Fis Adamnan – Adamnan of Iona’s vision – adapted from a translation from Gaelic by my great-great-uncle, Whitley Stokes. Irish or Scottish? I don’t care. It belongs to both of us. Here it is.

‘Three matchless birds on the chair before the King, and their minds set on their Creator through all time; that is their part. The eight hours of prayer, these they celebrate by praising and acclaiming the Lord, with chanting of Archangels joining in harmony. The birds and the Archangels lead the song, and all Heaven’s family, both saints and holy virgins, answer in antiphony.’

-30-

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