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Musick Fyne: Robert Carver and the Art of Music in Sixteenth Century Scotland.

The subtitle of this book is likely to convey more to the reader than the title itself. James Ross is an enthusiastic apologist, not to say polemicist, for Robert Carver's music, together with that of Robert Johnson, David Peebles, and lesser lights of the time. There is more than a touch of chauvinism in his advocacy, which is understandable given the way Scots culture came to be suppressed and acknowledging that the music of Carver and Johnson has not been properly recognized hitherto. Nevertheless, his enthusiasm often gets the better of him, and several molehills are paraded as mountains.

Carver is undoubtedly a major figure of the period, with a unique style; but Ross's attempt to set his face against English and continental influences leads him to navigate the treacherous waters that lie between the shoals dubious and rocks bizarre, witness his discussion of the "St Andrews Music Book" ([W.sub.1]) and his claiming of Walter Frye as a Scotsman (pp. 8-9). All of this smacks of the sort of claims made earlier in the century by W. H. Grattan Flood for Irish music, an impression fortified by a wildly uncritical admission (p. 175) of Henry George Farmer's A History of Music in Scotland (London: Hinrichsen Edition, 1947). This over-egging of the cake is a pity, for there is much to admire both in this book and in the music treated. Besides the uncritical enthusiasm of some of the book, there are one or two other features that do not win over the reader, such as the lack of any subject index. The music examples, often in minute print and overflowing into the margins, do not help either, especially when there is text added in not always legible handwriting.

What Ross does convey powerfully is that the Reformation had a far more negative effect on Scottish music than its English counterpart, not least because of the Union brought about by the move south of King James. This also affected the preservation of the sources, which survived in comparatively fewer numbers than elsewhere. Naturally, this engenders a multum in parvo view of the extant material.

The style of the book is lucid, though there are one or two curious phrases like 'virtuosic' (p. 14) that stick in the craw. There are a few clangers, too, notably the continental woodcut on page 103 being given English nationality (and is a sackbut player really a "sackbutter?"). It is surely due to a malevolent Sassenach proofreader that there is a reference to the Angus Dei (p. 15).

Ross's occasional discussions of vocal technique, especially in regard to Carver, often depend on taking the pitch of the notation at face value. Although it is legitimate to speak of the wide vocal ranges demanded by Carver (p. 14), the identification of male altos here, or of tenors elsewhere (p. 61), is subjective, not to say chimerical.

With these strictures is mind, Ross has nevertheless written a persuasive book on a little known subject. He opens our eyes to the Scots contribution to a musical culture that far transcends the view of "a land of massed bagpipes and drums and couthie ceilidhs" (p. 148); as he points out, this view was perpetuated as much by the Scots themselves as by outsiders. He has drawn attention to a fascinating subject, and encouraged the reevaluation of one of the most fruitful times in Scottish musical history.

DAVID WULSTAN University of Wales, Aberystwyth
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Author:Wulstan, David
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1995
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