Welsh Tribute to Scottish Composers Separated by Five Centuries

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Carver, MacMillan: Welsh Camerata, Andrew Wilson-Dickson (conductor), St Catherine’s Church, Pontypridd, 28.11.2015 (PCG)

 Robert Carver – Mass Dum Sacrum Mysterium (excerpts): Mass L’homme armée (Credo): Gaude Flora Virginale

James MacMillan – Strathclyde Motets (excerpts)


This programme, billed under the title of Scottish Dawn, enterprisingly combined the music of two Scottish composers separated in time by some five hundred years. The idea of interspersing the works of the older and newer writers worked well, since it underlined a number of surprising similarities in the approach of two Catholic composers to their Latin texts.

Robert Carver was born in 1470 and lived to the ripe old age of 85, although he seems to have given up composing at around the age of 60 when most of his music was assembled into a collection at Scone Abbey where he spent most of his life. The Mass Dum sacrum mysterium is noted as having been composed at the age of 23, and it seems to have been intended for performance at the coronation of King James V of Scotland after the Battle of Flodden. The programme note observed that the music is “deliberately ambitious” but this seems to be rather an understatement; the listener gets the decided feeling that the young composer was taking the opportunity to stretch his wings in an innovative manner that nowadays would be described as “sowing his wild oats”. The elaborate scoring in ten parts certainly demonstrated an experimental approach to his material, with at the same time a decidedly cavalier attitude towards the actual meaning of his Latin text. In the Sanctus for example he played very fast and loose with his syntax, dividing the music into sections with scant regard for the unity of Latin phrases: “Pleni sunt caeli et terra…[silent break]…gloria tua” and later “Benedictus qui venit…[break]…in nomini Domini.” The composer here was clearly placing musical considerations above those of meaning. The programme note described the music as the “final flowering of a long mediaeval tradition brought to an abrupt end by the Reformation.” And the Counter-Reformation, one might add: this sort of priority given to purely musical considerations was surely the sort of thing that exercised the Council of Trent, and the later priority given to more unified treatments of the text by composers such as Palestrina and his followers.

We were also given two extracts from Carver’s Mass based on the mediaeval battle song L’homme armée (another practice that elicited censure from the Council of Trent) played as a pair of interludes by a consort of viols; and the concert ended with the motet Gaude Flore Virginate based on a seven-verse poem by St Thomas of Canterbury. Here Carver was much more circumspect in his treatment of the text, although the sense of musical experiment remained – most notably in the extraordinary harmonic side-slips from one mode to another in the final verse, which seemed to break every rule in the book. So too did some of the part-writing in the lower male voices during the closing section of the Sanctus of the Mass. The close canonic imitation in the Dona nobis pacem was also thrillingly effective, and in the aftermath of the Battle of Flodden would surely have had an immediate impact on its original audience.

James MacMillan has to date written over twenty Strathclyde Motets, of which we were here given a selection of four. By comparison with Carver, their treatment of the voices seemed positively conventional, although apart from the links with mediaeval practice the use of vocal melismata seemed to recall the inflections of Eastern Orthodox church music, possibly reflected through the medium of John Tavener (another composer much influenced by mediaeval models). The concert opened with Data est mihi potestas, followed by the very beautiful Dominus dabit both of which displayed the choir to have a firm sense of controlled singing even in some of the more stratospheric passages. The setting of Sedebit Dominus Rex unexpectedly introduced some English words in the central section (translations were provided for the Latin texts of the other motets, but the choir’s English diction was very clear) and for In splendoribus sanctorum we were surprised by the entry of a trumpet from the back of the church, well played by Helen Whitemore in some very tricky writing. She might well have been further distanced to greater advantage in the superb resonance of the church (possibly in the vestry?) but the results were nevertheless very effective.

I myself conducted the first performance of my church opera The Dialogues of Óisin and Saint Patric in this same venue some forty years ago, and although the acoustic space of course remained as superbly resonant as ever (and the choir produced a fine sound) other problems also remained, in particular the sound of distant traffic revving up the hill outside and the church bells in the clock tower which sometimes chimed in to disconcerting effect. However the size of the audience (fewer listeners than performers!) was very disappointing for a town which once upon a time had a reputation for amateur music-making and appreciative enthusiasts who regularly attended concerts. With the closure of the mines in the South Wales valleys, many of the amateur choirs and bands sponsored by their local communities have been shamefully allowed to wither on the vine; and it seems that the public support for hearing music has withered also. The singers, players, and the enthusiastic conductor Andrew Wilson-Dickson who provided spoken introductions to the music, all deserved a better response.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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