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John Clerk (1676-1755)

The Lion of Scotland

Cantatas by John Clerk of Penicuik
Catherine Bott (soprano), Concerto Caledonia
Label: Hyperion
Recording details: May 1994
St Andrew's Church, Glasgow, Scotland
Produced by David McGuinness & Martin Dalby
Engineered by James Hunter
Release date: April 1998
Total duration: 67 minutes 50 seconds

Cover artwork: Classical Landscape with Figures (c1770) by Alexander Runciman (1736-1785)

This is the first recording of any of Clerk's cantatas which are among the finest contributions to baroque music from these islands from a man of great cultural significance and with a crucial place in the history of Scottish culture. Clerk studied in Rome under Corelli and Pasquini and was also a lawyer, judge, amateur architect, artist, poet and landscape gardener. A great deal more fascinating information about him is printed in the CD booklet.

Clerk had a natural melodic gift and his vocal writing is magnificent: intense, sensuous, varied. He enhances his texts with subtle illustrative touches, from a ground bass representing Fortune's wheel, to delicate violin trills depicting hovering cupids. Leo Scotiae irritatus commemorates an ill-fated claim by Scotland to colonize the Panama isthmus, an enterprise which led to conflict with the English and the Spanish. Dic mihi confesses to a somewhat ambivalent sexuality.

Clerk's direct heir in the male line, the present Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, still lives at Penicuik House, and it is with his permission that the editions used here were made from Clerk's original manuscripts.


‘Splendid. Steane's Choice’ (Gramophone)

‘A recording that presents some fascinating material to fine advantage’ (American Record Guide)

‘Utterly fascinating. Thoroughly rewarding music and music-making’ (Fanfare, USA)
This is the first complete recording of any of Clerk’s cantatas. They are amongst the finest contributions to baroque music from these islands and they come from a man of great cultural significance. John Clerk of Penicuik was born in 1676 and died in 1755. The range of his interests and abilities was enormous and he takes a crucial place in the history of Scottish culture. He was a lawyer, judge, amateur architect, artist and poet, landscape gardener and musician. He was also a signatory to the 1707 Treaty and Act of Union between the parliaments of Scotland and England, though Leo Scotiae irritatus demonstrates unequivocally that he started off life with no love for such an idea.

He studied at Penicuik, Glasgow University and the University of Leiden, where he made particular friends with the young and subsequently internationally renowned Dutch physician Herman Boerhaave. Boerhaave wrote the texts of two of Clerk’s Latin cantatas—the sacred cantata Eheu! quam diris hominis and the secular cantata Leo Scotiae irritatus. He may also have written the text of Dic mihi saeve puer—a cantata protesting at the cruelty of Cupid.

Despite pressure from his father (‘You were sent by me to Holland to studie not architecture, nor policie nor fidling nor to see curiosities for that is no dutie, but to studie law’), Clerk continued his musical studies in Rome under Corelli and Pasquini. This was an act of cultural self-assertion in another sense. Rome was the home of Roman Catholicism and had a reputation in Protestant circles such as Clerk’s for loose women and general licentiousness. It was no place for a young Protestant to visit (as his father had made clear), but for the young Clerk it was a vital and formative experience. All Clerk’s compositions seem to have been composed during or shortly after his European tour in the late 1690s.

A fascinating element in Clerk’s compositions is his use of number symbolism. However, this need not surprise us in a man who became a Freemason, who restored the fifteenth-century Rosslyn Chapel with its complex symbolism relating to the Knights Templar, and who was the great-great-grandfather of one of the greatest scientific minds of all time—James Clerk Maxwell.

Clerk studied composition first in Holland with Zumbach (whom he later assisted), and then in Rome where Corelli gave Clerk several lessons per week—a unique honour. But there are undoubted contradictions between his music and his later career, which led to his abandonment of composition as unbecoming in a judge. This is a great pity as his music operates at many levels and he could well have gone on to greater things. He had a natural melodic gift and his vocal writing is magnificent: intense, sensuous, varied. He enhances his texts with subtle illustrative touches, from a ground bass to represent Fortune’s wheel, to delicate trills on the violins depicting hovering cupids. Clerk seems to have had a command of the whole range from dry recitative, delivering words efficiently, through more melodic declamation, to full cantabile style suitable for an aria. This variety of presentation and mood was a part of Corelli’s technique which was particularly admired, and which Clerk made his own.

At a deeper level, Clerk’s cantatas offer a remarkable insight into Baroque attitudes to structure. Clerk was in Rome partly to study architecture. He became an amateur architect and drew parallels between music and architecture which he realized in both fields. Dic mihi, for example, is derived from a single motif which in various forms determines the melodic outline of each section. Allied to this is Clerk’s use of symbolic numerology to motivate the structure, in the Miserere using Hebrew numerological values to determine the length of sections in a setting of Vulgate Psalm 50; in another work making an indelicate sexual pun out of the number values for the names of Bedford and Howland, whose nuptials he celebrates in Odo di mesto intorno; and in Leo Scotiae irritatus, building up the opening section of the work out of eleven-bar phrases—a most unusual if not unique procedure, with a hidden symbolic agenda (see below).

These works also provide an historical insight into social and political attitudes at the time. Odo di mesto intorno tells us much about the dynastic marriage system in England—the Duke of Bedford being possibly the richest man in Europe, and his wife being from a similarly wealthy background; but it is the cantata which reveals that they were married so young that the bedding of the bride is only about to take place two years later. Leo Scotiae irritatus shows us a Dutch writer collaborating with a Scot to claim for Scotland the right to set up a colony on the Panama isthmus without interference from the English and Spanish. Dic mihi confesses to a somewhat ambivalent sexuality, and the Miserere sets a Penitential Psalm which seeks forgiveness for adultery. At its very centre is a highly personal recitative, suggesting that Clerk himself was the penitent—though whether his adultery was carnal or a spiritual adultery with Roman Catholicism is a moot point.

Clerk’s first wife and son died young. He married again and had several children. His direct heir in the male line, the present Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, still lives at Penicuik House, and it is with his permission that the editions used here were made from Clerk’s original manuscripts.

As a handsome and attractive young man in a continental society much more liberated than his own, Clerk must have found himself often tempted. Dic mihi saeve puer charts these temptations with a sensual honesty and a religious hopefulness, while harking back with subtle reference to the Italian custom of courtesans dancing in drag, and ending with more desperation than hope. It is a little masterpiece of emotional drama.

The cantata is 250 bars long divided into seven sections. The fourth section starts on bar 100. The first and last sections have the same number of bars. To what extent this is deliberate and what its significance may be have yet to be made out, but it is clear that Clerk had a very definite desire to unify the structure overall, for he has based every single section on the same motif of a descending third—marvellously varied in treatment but unmistakable as a unifying factor.

The cantata starts with an expressive introduction to the opening recitative and arioso protesting at the cruel beauty of Cupid, a boy with the limbs of a young girl who inflicts ‘mille mille vulnera’—‘a thousand thousand wounds’. There follows a languishing arioso section which blends protest and submission to the fires and chains of love, and this leads into a prayer to Venus to have pity, which Clerk sets in the form of an old-fashioned triple-time galliard. The choice is deliberate. The Italians, according to Morley, writing a century earlier:

Make their Galliards plain, and frame ditties to them which in their masquerades they sing and dance, and many times without any instruments at all, but instead of instruments they have courtesans disguised in men’s apparel who sing and dance to their own songs.

Clerk’s galliard has a spare instrumental accompaniment and re-enacts that ancient love ritual, the confused sexuality of the courtesans matched by the confused sexuality of Cupid; the whole dedicated to Venus.

The cantata ends with the singer’s heart aflame with the tortures of love, longing for release in death from the bow of dread desire, the ‘wanton bands’ of young tender girls. The music is in places distracted, in others despairing, and ends in desperate but clearly hopeless determination.

It is possible that the equivocal sexuality of the piece is mirrorred in the numerological structure: adding the number of bars of various combinations of adjacent sections produces many numbers which read backwards the same as they read forwards: 99, 151, 88, 101, 121, and the famously inverted 69.

The remarkable cantata Leo Scotiae irritatus is about the Darien Scheme—an ambitious venture by the Scots to retain a place in world trade by colonizing the Panama isthmus. The colony was underfunded and harrassed by the English and Spanish, and it failed. With the former there followed a trade war and eventual compromise in the form of the Union of the Parliaments. Clerk was one of its architects and signatories; but he was also a patriot as Leo Scotiae irritatus—‘The Scottish Lion angered’—demonstrates.

The text is by Boerhaave who, being Dutch, would have sympathized with another small maritime nation like his own trying to assert itself. The last pages of the score are missing, though we have the complete text. Did Clerk remove their triumphant vision when he learned of the failure of the colony?

The symbolic nature of the work is given added significance by the fact that Clerk became a Freemason and restored the fifteenth-century Rosslyn Chapel, close to his own home at Penicuik. Rosslyn Chapel is designed and fantastically decorated with the iconography of the Knights Templar and their successors, the Freemasons. It was built by William Sinclair, an hereditary Grand Master Mason whose forebear Prince Henry Sinclair is believed to have made a voyage by the old Irish and Viking northern route to America in 1398. It was presumably intended both to expand trade and found a New Jerusalem in the West. The parallels with the Darien Scheme must have been irresistible to Clerk; hence it is that the first half of the work is built out of what are musically most unusual phrases of multiples of eleven bars, for the number eleven represents the number of the tribes of Israel given land. The idea is that the Scottish colony in Darien would be a new Promised Land, the Scottish clan system being a natural parallel to the tribal system of the Jews.

The first movement is a clarion call to arms with the enemy scattered and destroyed. It has an eleven-bar instrumental opening and the total is forty-four bars, indicating (via Hebrew numerology) that the cantata is in essence a Psalm ‘of David’. The thirty-three bars making up the vocal section probably symbolize the thirty-three degrees in The Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. The second movement reflects on God’s support for the Scots. It is twenty-two bars long and represents the number of kings in Chronicles II, the first (Solomon) and last of whom (Cyrus) built the Temple of Solomon upon which Sinclair based his designs for Rosslyn. The total so far is sixty-six bars, underlining the Biblical justification, sixty-six being the number of books in the protestant Bible; however, the ensuing renewal of battle breaks the pattern of the numerology. It is interesting to compare this martial section with the equally effective but less belligerent battle of love in Clerk’s Italian canata.

The next movement acknowledges that Fortune’s wheel is turning against the Scots and asks for it to be reversed. Clerk uses a ground bass shaped to imitate the repeating rise and fall of the wheel. Against this the voice sings in broken phrases, vainly enumerating Scotland’s virtues—which include righteousness, law, religion, justice and equity. These were the very things enshrined on the tablets of law in the Ark of the Covenant in the perfect cube of the Holy of Holies at the heart of the Temple of Solomon, so Clerk has made the movement twenty-seven bars long—three by three by three, a perfect cube. The ground bass itself is three bars long and occurs nine times—again, three by three by three.

The last surviving section looks forward to the gentle peacefulness of a Scottish pastoral idyll in the new colony; but it is only eighteen bars long, and the fact that the score is incomplete denies us the ability to assess the numerology further.

Miserere mei, Deus is an ambitious five-part sacred cantata, a setting of parts of the Vulgate Psalm 50 (51 in modern psalters). There are five sections and exactly four hundred bars. Three of the sections are eighty-six bars long. The centre point in terms of bar numbers is at bar two hundred where the text ceases to focus on sin and asks God to create in the supplicant a pure heart, the word ‘heart’ (‘cor’) being at the heart of the work. It occurs at the first vocal entry following a brief but highly personal and emotional recitative, the only recitative in the whole cantata.

Clearly, the structure is organized on numerical principles, of which the primary one is the name for God ‘Elohim’ which, in the Hebrew alphabet, adds up to 86. The total of 400 represents completion, it being the number assigned to the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

Psalm 51 is a Psalm of David composed as a penance for his adultery with Bathsheba—an adultery which he followed up by putting her husband Uriah in the front line of the army so he would be killed. The heading of the Psalm makes this clear, referring to the prophet Nathan’s demand for David’s penance.

Clerk, in chosing to set this Psalm, must have been well aware of its meaning. When he put at its heart a personal recitative (he alters the original word order to make it even more expressive), we can only conclude that he felt he too had sinned. Had he committed adultery and does this cantata act as a sacred counterpart to Dic mihi saeve puer where he sought to escape the wiles of Cupid? Or was there another symbolism in this—a kind of adultery with the Roman Catholic Church while he was in Rome? Clerk wrote to his father at this time:

You may perhaps think I have a dangerous person beside me when my Cousin is not only a catholic but a Fryer of the order of St Francis, for after the battle of Kilecrankie he came to Italy.

We know Clerk attended Mass in the Sistine chapel where ‘the musick was exceedingly divine, being the compositions of the famous Palestrina’. His life had been saved by nuns who had nursed him when he had smallpox. Had he been too deeply impressed for his own liking by the fact that the Roman Church and its adherents had offered him not only family ties and musical inspiration, but life itself? The answer to these questions may lie in other symbolic aspects of this work, but they await elucidation.

By 1705, when the Sonata a violino solo was probably written, Clerk was introducing Scottish elements into his style. The opening Preludium is wholly Italianate with its flourishes of scales, but the brief variations which follow have some Scottish touches and following a slow air there is a final Scottish jig which romps away with the piece. This work is also of structural interest, embodying the idea of Platonic ideal forms of which the thematic ideas of the whole sonata are the material manifestations. Clerk’s study of the classics is here put to use as part of an aesthetic which is remarkably ahead of its time, creating unity by thematic cross-references, the ideas derived from each other while allowing for contrast.

Interestingly, Clerk has made this sonata eighty-six bars long, thus incorporating the name ‘Elohim’ into it. Perhaps by this means he hoped to defend himself from Presbyterian criticism!

The text for Eheu! quam diris hominis was also written by Herman Boerhaave. The relationship between composer and librettist is particularly evoked in these words, which describes death as the only true release from physical suffering. Clerk responded feelingly to a text which had obvious bearing on his own sufferings, particularly the recurrence of smallpox shortly after his arrival in Rome. Boerhaave had failed to cure him, despite high hopes for a new treatment he had developed, and Clerk (without companion or servant) was nursed through his illness by the ladies of the Society of the Tour di Spechio.

Boerhaave wrote to Clerk about the text, describing the emphasis he had given to I, E and S as sounds suitable for lamentation, drawing attention to the rhythm and metre, and stating that in the first two sections the mood of mourning dominates, in the third a sense of hope emerges, the fourth being joyful and the fifth, devout and exultant. Clerk has respected these observations. The opening Adagio and Aria are full of intensity, with sighing repeated notes and dissonant harmonic suspensions, the voice declaiming in broken phrases.

For the second half Clerk changes the key to the relative major and the bass line becomes cheerfully active, the vocal line gently florid; but this is dancing on the edge of the grave. The final Allegro is a dark little jig in the minor key advising us to leave the earth with joyful singing.

At the top of the score of Odo di mesto intorno Clerk proudly wrote:

This Cantata was made by me at the Duke of Bedford’s desire. The Poesie was made by one of his servants, an Italian, and performed by Corelli, and other musicians before his grace and many of the Roman nobility …

This is the longest of Clerk’s cantatas and was composed in 1698 for the departure of the eighteen-year-old Wriothesley Russell, Duke of Bedford, and Baron Howland from Frascati for Naples, almost certainly to consummate his dynastic marriage to Elizabeth Howland which had taken place when he was fifteen and she thirteen. This likelihood is underlined by the number symbolism in the piece. The numerical value of the name ‘Bedford’ is fifty-two; that of ‘Howland’ seventy-two. The opening Sinfonia adds up to fifty-two bars, announcing the hero’s name, and reflecting two basic moods, sad leave-taking and anticipation of nuptial joy. The main section of the final aria adds up to seventy-two bars, the voice entering after twenty bars and therefore leaving fifty-two bars. In this section Clerk, after twenty bars of instrumental foreplay has literally embedded Bedford in Howland, at which entry point the lady sings.

The opening soprano recitative expresses the sorrows of Nature and of man, and the following plaintive aria explains the cause—the departure of the young English hero. The next recitative and aria are more cheerful. Exhorted by the recitative, the aria banishes sorrows claiming, in its central section, that a feeble heart is no good in such a case. Here is the turning point, for the restraint the young couple presumably underwent for three years must now be thrown off. The active bass line encourages and the outer sections of the aria make lovely play with the words ‘lontananza d’amor’ in which distant love becomes seductively yielding.

There follows a magnificent section sending the young hero forth to meet his beloved in virgin white in the battle of love prepared by Cupid. The aria is full of excitement and echoes of military fervour, but never steps outside the gentility proper to the occasion. The vocal line is brilliant but not excessive, and the writing for the two violins is marvellously active, amorous fanfares answering each other, but always coherent.

The ensuing recitative sustains the mood but, with the battle of love joined at close quarters, the aria is more gentle and little cupids frolic around the couple, delicately expressed by the violins and the vocal line. The cantata ends with lingering and deliberate sensuality, underlined by the arcane number symbolism. The violins intertwine amorously and the gentle but determined rise and fall of the voice is its own explanation.

John Purser © 1998

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