Not so altogidder decayed

Cantus, songs and fanciesMR280.d.65.1

Cantus, songs and fancies

This week I’ve spent a lot of time looking through music tutors, as the new Anderson Room exhibition for the next month is all about those books that started us off on our musical journey (it will be opening on Monday, so do come and have a look). Among other delights are a sixteenth-century theory book, a multi-coloured ukulele manual, dancing dinosaurs with recorder-playing skills, and a piano tutor fit for a princess. One little volume though quickly became a favourite of mine: Cantus, songs and fancies : to three, four or five voices. With a brief introduction to musick.  As is taught in the Musick-School of Aberdeen (MR280.d.65.1). The slim volume is packed with handy hints, a simple illustrated guide to musical concepts, a spirited defence of music and popular songs of the day. What most impressed me about Cantus, songs and fancies though was the story behind it : the story of the transcendence of music.

The Musick-School of Aberdeen was one of a number of schools set up in Scotland to support local musical talent. Masters were selected after a lengthy interview process in which they were expected to audition in front of a musical panel as well as show their skills in teaching the 3 R’s. Originally founded in the late 15th century (though there had been an earlier form of the school), the Aberdeen Musick, or Song, School soon became well known.

Early steps in music.

Early steps in music.

At the time of the Reformation, the Musick School fell into disuse, with a general movement away from sung liturgy to simple psalm chanting. Anxious not to lose its Musick School, the local council appointed a new Master, Andrew Kempt in 1570, who was expected to train the children in “musick, manners, and vertew”. The children were taught singing and how to play an instrument. They were also taught reading and writing, and possibly languages. In the 1640s arithmetic was added to the curriculum. Despite riots between the children of the Musick School and their fellow students at Aberdeen Grammar School (which led to some students being expelled), and the enforced removal of the building to a new location, the Musick School prospered through the early 17th century.

Former pupils seem to have done well too, with one graduand becoming an apprentice virginal maker in the town.

The middle of the century though was a tough time for the granite city. Aberdeen suffered during the Civil War, it was ransacked by Royalist troops following the Battle of Aberdeen in 1644, and was stormed again in 1646. In 1647 bubonic plague broke out in the city, and killed around 25% of the population. By 1648 the Musick School was in a sad state. It was described as “altogidder decayed throw the iniquitie of [the] tyme”. Ironically this appears to have coincided with one of the Musick School’s most enthusiastic Masters, Thomas Davidson. The school’s most enduring memorial is the small volume Cantus, songs and fancies : to three, four or five voices published by John Forbes. It is the only known 17th century secular music score published in Scotland, and includes a collection of sacred and secular songs and choruses, some of which were taught by Davidson at the school.

The first edition of 1662, which is remarkably rare, contained a few Scottish songs, which were gradually removed from later editions. The third enlarged edition of 1682, the edition that is here in Cambridge, removes all the Scottish songs, and adds a new section of Italian songs composed by Giovanni Giacomo Gastoldi. It’s probably no coincidence that by 1682 Thomas Davidson was dead, and that the new Master was the Frenchman Louis de France, who studied under Lully’s father-in-law, Michel Lambert. Forbes was evidently aiming for the more cosmopolitan market.

Learning to read

Learning to read…

Most touching though in this volume is Forbes’ preface; an exhortation of the importance of music. At times inadvertently comical “….we read of one who doth report, that he saw a lyon in London leave his meat to hear musick”, often a product of plagiarism, it’s still hard not to be moved by a publisher who had survived one of the most testing of times, and whose love for the music he published shines through every page of the entrancing Cantus, songs and fancies. 

Although the school fared well through the late 17th century, the 18th century proved more difficult. Ironically this may have been because there was improved access to music education. Until the early 18th century private music teachers were banned from teaching in the city, as this was relaxed or became impossible to police, the school became surplus to requirements. The school closed in 1749, when the last Master, Andrew Tait, was given a pension of £40 p.a. to run his own school. In 1748 the Aberdeen Musical Society was formed. The timing wasn’t exactly accidental as Andrew Tait was heavily involved in the birth of the new society. Though the Society closed in 1806, music continues to be at the heart of life in Aberdeen.

Incidentally our copy testifies to the ubiquitous nature of music, it may have featured songs that Charles II would have enjoyed singing, but it was formerly owned and loved by a Scottish shoemaker, John Marshall.

Love will find out a way. One of the many popular songs included in Cantus, songs and fancies

Love will find out a way. One of the many popular songs included in Cantus, songs and fancies


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About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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5 Responses to Not so altogidder decayed

  1. Fascinating piece – thanks very much!


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