IT’S an alarming fact that perhaps our greatest composer was almost permanently evicted from our national cultural life by the Reformation. How the Carver Choirbook survived it, we do not know, but if it hadn’t we would have lost nearly all Robert Carver’s masterpieces. What survives? For sure, five masses for ten, four, four, five and six voices respectively; and two motets, one for 19, the other for five. Did he write more? Almost certainly a couple of anonymous works, but apart from that we don’t know.

Think of it this way. Imagine that virtually every note that Franz Schubert wrote was used for firelighters. Result? No Schubert. Actually that nearly happened to his ever-popular music for Rosamunde. The full score was used to light the fire. The music only survived because the orchestral parts were found in a corner of somebody’s study, buried and forgotten. So it isn’t just the Reformation that puts works of art at risk: it’s a lack of concern for or interest in cultural achievement.

It might also be called ignorance. With respect to Carver (c1484-c1568), there is no shortage of ignorance. We don’t know exactly when he was born or when he died, and we have few details of his life. For a man whose music is of such beauty and profound significance; who clearly had access to the finest choristers in the land; who wrote a most personal penitential motet for his King, this absence of information is astonishing.

You could say the Reformation did no more than put Carver out of fashion; but fashion, like “celebrity culture”, can be the cause of great damage, particularly to ideas which demand serious attention and which reflect the capacity of humanity to reach beyond the simplistic easy answers – even to reach beyond our own humanity towards something better. Call this elitism if you like, but if there is nothing higher than popular culture to aspire to, what hope for aspiration, and where is excellence to be found if it is to be pursued? Many years ago, I was so intrigued by the survival of this one manuscript of Carver’s music that I wrote a radio play about it. Stewart Conn commissioned it for BBC Radio Scotland and Radio 3, and the great Tom Fleming took the title part of Carver. He was magnificent.

The National:

In the play, the Carver Choirbook (above, Image Credit: National Library of Scotland) survives because one of the choristers protects it from the mob at the cost of his life. The chorister, Davie (played wonderfully by Kenneth Glanaan) is what we would nowadays call “learning disabled” – but not so much so that he could not sing and could not appreciate beauty and give his life for its survival. His values were beyond fashion, religious dogma, and medical definition. It was a play, so it was all speculation, of course. But the fact is that many choirbooks were destroyed at the time of the Reformation and we have no real idea of how much else we have lost.

For example, none other than the Regent of Scotland, the Earl of Moray, burnt books which had belonged to the Chapel Royal: “Item tayne be my Lordis Grace and brint vi Mass Buikis.” And on December 14, 1561, in the Chapel Royal, no less: “Her grace’s devout chaplains would, by the good device of Arthur Erskine, have sung a high mass: The Earl of Argyle, and the Lord James, so disturbed the quire, that some both priests and clerks, left their places, with broken heads, and bloody ears: it was a sport alone, for some that were there to behold it; others there were that shed a tear or two, and made no more of the matter.”

So the highest in the land behaved like the worst of cultural vandals. In their day, they were the equivalent of the Taliban who destroyed the statues of the Buddha of Bamiyan, or of Daesh smashing Assyrian statues. A priest in Saint Andrews, Thomas Wode, did what he could to save music from the wreckage, but he was not hopeful, writing despairingly in a margin: “I cannot understand bot musike sall pereische in this land alutterlye …”

If you have been following any of my previous articles about Scottish composers from different periods, you will have realised that their legacies and their reputations were also vulnerable. So do we actually care about our culture? Not enough. Not nearly enough.

Last week Alan Riach gave us a taste of the wonders of Gavin Douglas, a great Scottish writer, writing in “the language of the Scottish natioun – kepand na sudroun [English] bot our awin language.” Those are Douglas’s words. Here are the words of his King – James IV – in 1507, defending Scottish religious and musical culture by law: “And als it is divisit and thocht expedient be us and our counsall that in tyme cuming mess bukis, manualis, matyne bukis and portuus bukis efter our awin Scottis use and with legendis of Scottis sanctis as is now gaderit and ekit be ane reverend fader in God and our traist counsalour Williame, bischop of Abirdene, and utheris, be usit generaly within al our realme als sone as the sammyn may be imprentit and providit …”

The King went further. He banned the future import of all books that followed the use of Salisbury Cathedral, but he did not destroy those that were already here. What James IV wanted was that, rather than prioritise other’s, we should honour our own saints. But you have to believe in them if you are to honour them, and the same applies to our great composers, painters, sculptors and writers.

Even for those who have cared, there have always been doubts: worries that the music is not good enough to praise, not good enough to revive. It was thus possible for one of the great champions of Robert Carver’s music, the late Kenneth Elliott, to write that in places Carver is “by no means free of technical errors such as parallel fifths and octaves and strong unprepared dissonances.”

It was Elliott’s own student, the late Isobel Woods-Preece, who showed that Carver knew exactly what he was doing and why: that he was not hide-bound by the rules, but allowed his own expressive genius freedom from them as and when necessary. When I once praised one of Carver’s pieces as a work of great genius, I remember Kenneth asking me, with surprised delight “Do you really think so, John?”

And yes, I do. Well, Carver’s reputation is now secure, and hats off to Kenneth Elliott and many another for having done so much to secure it. His was a harder row to hoe than mine, and his complete edition of the works of Robert Carver published in Musica Scotica I represents one of the most important publications of Scottish culture of any kind and any period.

But I want to follow up on my last article on the Enlightenment. In it I wrote that the Reformation could be as profoundly destructive of the fruits of Rationality as it is possible to imagine. I argued that music, being based upon Ratio, was innately Rational and that these ratios in terms of octave (2:1) and 5th (3:2) and second (9:8) and so on, had been systematically studied. Their different sound characteristics were exploited with the utmost care and were, for many centuries, subject to strict regulation, for all that the rules changed over the centuries.

But if we understand those rules as the outcome of the attempt to bring many lines of melody together simultaneously without causing chaos, then we can understand why they were very largely respected.

Try making a piece of music with ten real parts, each one different from the others, but sharing the same material. It calls for a lot of skill to retain coherence and a sense of natural fluidity, never mind creating something beautiful. Gavin Douglas understood all that and even listed the techniques – which Alan Riach quoted last week.

Every music student up until very recent times used to be made to study those rules and compose music which followed them. Mostly it was sterile work because one was almost always wrong, and nowadays we have gained greater freedoms. But it was, above all, Rational, and the Reformation attempted to destroy it because it had reached such heights of sophistication and beauty that it seemed to be beyond the reach of many religious communicants.

Beyond the reach, maybe; beyond easy comprehension, yes; but not beyond the sense of beauty and of mystery that is in all of us and that is more than fantasy. Without that sense of something inspiring that is beyond us and yet there, felt, absorbed, internalised into our hearts and souls, we are left with only the immediate pleasures and little that can last.

It was such “Musick Fyne”, as it was called, that Robert Carver composed, inspired by a profound religious faith and realising the very highest ideals of his art. The fruits of his immense skills are not themselves rational: their beauty borders on the mystical. The 19-part motet O Bone Jesu was composed as a penitential prayer for James IV who had, as a teenager, been implicated in the murder of his father. The prayer is personalised – admitte me intrare in regnum Tuum “allow me to enter into Thy kingdom”.

Normally the text reads “allow us . . .”. James IV knew he was only a temporal king: the true Kingdom was the Kingdom of Jesus – O Bone Jesu. As for the choice of 19 parts, the symbolism involved is too rich and complex for me to explain here, save to state that it relates to the perfect human being, and to the metonic lunar/solar cycle, and that Carver’s contemporary, the great poet Robert Henryson, used the same symbolism in his poem about Orpheus. At the time, these ideas were considered to be profoundly rational, the perfection of the number nineteen being inherited from Plato’s cosmic system in the Timaeus.

But I can more readily explain the reason for the choice of ten parts for Carver’s mass Dum Sacrum Mysterium , although it goes well beyond rationality.

Carver himself tells us in the manuscript that Dum Sacrum Mysterium was written “ad honorem dei et sancti michaelis” – in honour of God and Saint Michael. The title itself is a “Sacred Mystery”. The mass would be performed on the feast of St Michael, and on that day they would sing the text of Dum Sacrum Mysterium as a matter of course: “While John beheld the sacred mystery, Michael the archangel sounded the trumpet. Forgive, oh Lord our God – Thou who openest the book and loosest the seals thereof.”

This apocalyptic vision is accompanied by naming the nine orders of angels. A precedent is provided by Carver’s predecessor, Wilkinson, whose nine-part Salve Regina in the Eton Choirbook has each part given the name of one of the nine orders of angels. So why has Carver used ten parts instead of nine? Because the text goes on to say “The angels are the work of Thy primeval hand, we the latest fashioned in Thine image.”

So the ten parts of Carver’s Mass represent the nine orders of angels, and the tenth lost order (led by Lucifer) is replaced by the voices of men. This has not only a wonderful suggestion that man can share in the heavenly chorus, but actually supposes that what we are listening to is the heavenly chorus.

I am no more a Christian than I am a Freemason, but beauty has no interest in my personal beliefs and nor should my version of history: and so it is with an open heart that I can say that if you have heard Carver’s ten-part mass or his motet O Bone Jesu, then you have indeed heard the heavenly chorus as nearly as is possible for human ears.

Carver’s music is available on the following CDs, including on “An Eternal Harmony”, James MacMillan’s very beautiful setting of O Bone Jesu.

O Bone Jesu, Scotland’s Music, Linn CKD 008

Complete works of Robert Carver, ASV Gaudeamus CD GAU 125,126,127, available from Cappella Nova

“An Eternal Harmony”, CORO COR 16010 (Carver Credo from “Dum Sacrum Mysterium”, O Bone Jesu; Cornysh; Ramsey; MacMillan O Bone Jesu)

Mass for Three Voices, “The Thistle and the Rose” Music from the Carver Choirbook, Cappella Nova ASV Gaudeamus, CD GAU 342