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Leo Scotiae irritatus

First line:
Tuba sonato feralis!
author of text

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.

from notes by John Purser © 1998


Clerk: The Lion of Scotland


Track 2 on CDA67007 [6'15]

Track-specific metadata for CDA67007 track 2

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 2
    Release date: April 1998
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