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Dic mihi saeve puer

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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.

from notes by John Purser © 1998


Clerk: The Lion of Scotland


Track 1 on CDA67007 [9'21]

Track-specific metadata for CDA67007 track 1

Recording date
21 May 1994
Recording venue
St Andrew's Church, Glasgow, Scotland
Recording producer
David McGuinness & Martin Dalby
Recording engineer
James Hunter
Hyperion usage
  1. Clerk: The Lion of Scotland (CDA67007)
    Disc 1 Track 1
    Release date: April 1998
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