Rebecca Tavener

From the mists of time

8:00, 16th June 2017

It has taken nearly 500 years, but at last the complete extant works by the Scottish priest Robert Johnson are to be published. Rebecca Tavener gives a foretaste of treasures to be revealed

Three mysterious priest-composers caught in the maelstrom of Reformation dominate discussion of the sacred music of renaissance Scotland: Robert Carver, David Peebles, and Robert Johnson. Scotland’s musical history is frustratingly full of gaps and puzzles due to the revolutionary cultural upheaval of the Reformation, and it is monumentally saddening to acknowledge the inescapable truth that there must have been an enormous amount of music by these three and others destroyed or lost through reforming zeal, ignorant malice, or sheer carelessness. In recent years Carver and Peebles have enjoyed some time in the sun, but now it is Johnson’s turn to step out from the shadows.


Who was Robert Johnson (c.1470-after 1554; not to be confused with the English lutenist of the same name), what did he write, and why do we care? Biographical detail is thin, and the first scholar to champion his work – the late Dr Kenneth Elliott, who included four works by Johnson in Musica Britannica vol. XV, The Music of Scotland 1500-1700 – always expressed what little evidence there is with care. The earliest reference is from the Gyffard Partbooks of the mid-1550s which calls the composer ‘mr Johnson pryste’. In the Thomas Wode Partbooks1 (1566-92) there is a marginal note which describes Johnson as a Scottish priest born in Duns who was accused of heresy and who, in fear of persecution, fled to England ‘lang before reformation’. An Act of Parliament was passed in Scotland against the Lutheran heresy in 1525 and Elliott speculated that Johnson might have packed his bags in the late 1520s.


Paston Armorial Acheivement nThomas Wode asserted that Johnson knew the Hudson family of musicians in York, leading Elliott to suggest that he might have taken shelter with them on his way south. Here the possibilities become even more tempting to the imagination, as a connection to the infamous Howard clan emerges through the service of the Hudsons, which in turn led to the rumour that Johnson may have been a chaplain to the ill-fated Anne Boleyn, via a note in the Mulliner Book (1545-70)2 beside the keyboard version of Johnson’s setting of her lament, allegedly written on the eve of execution, ‘Defyled is my name’3. This annotation may be as late as the 1700s, however, and cannot be authenticated. Other sources describe him as a ‘petitcanon of windsore’, but this is almost certainly a prebend – a type of benefice that does not imply the actual presence of the beneficiary. The lack of corroborative evidence makes just about everything we would like to know about him little more than speculation.


Hans_Holbein_the_Younger_-_Queen_Anne_Boleyn_RL_12189 nHis musical legacy is 20 sacred works, some incomplete and reconstructed by Elliott, and 16 others: instrumental, secular songs, and items which only survive in one partbook. Some works have more than one life: his motet Gaude Maria Virgo, for example, also exists in an instrumental version which was copied into a book of In nomines4 along with Johnson’s own In nomine and other works. This manuscript is in ‘table book’ format so that the players could all sit around it to perform.


Among the keyboard works in the Mulliner Book is a version of Johnson’s Benedicam Domino, of which a lute song version also exists which is the most ‘authentic’ source. There’s also a single vocal part in the library of King’s College, Cambridge, and Elliott made an entirely plausible four-voice reconstruction from these leads which will appear in the appendix to the new edition. The text refers to the Queen (Elizabeth I) but could easily have originally referred to the King (Henry VIII) as the setting is monosyllabic: Elliott thought that this verse may have been added later.


Thinking of royalty, what about Johnson’s two extended settings (c.1540?) of Domine in virtute tua? These verses from Psalm 20/21 are associated with coronation and are traditionally sung during the unction, as the bishops pour holy oil to anoint the head of the monarch. Both are scored for five voices and are around ten minutes long, and these motets share some melodic material that is worked out in different ways; both are accomplished pieces of imitative counterpoint that do not suggest that Johnson was trying to improve on an unsatisfactory first go. There is no significant Tudor coronation to which we might pin these works, although it’s tempting to seek a link to Catherine Howard.


Another motet in two versions is the Easter Matins responsory Dum transisset sabbatum, modelled in the same way as John Taverner’s celebrated setting, for which Johnson produced versions for four and five voices, both beautiful and valuable in their own way. There are other Latin works which we can’t definitely attribute to him, such as two in the David Melville Bass-book, copied in Aberdeen, in which Elliott observed stylistic links with Johnson: this is just one of a number of single part books (the rest lost by accident, deliberate destruction, misappropriation by singers … we don’t know) that point the way to a much greater corpus of work by Johnson than has survived intact.


Like Tallis, Johnson also produced anthems in the vernacular: Benedicam Domino is one such (despite the Latin phrase at the top), and there is also I give you a new commandment, published in 1565 alongside English service music by Tallis and others. Johnson’s mature style might be neatly filed away as sub-Tallis, but there’s another mystery – a great style-shift in his work away from the decorated polyphony of his youth in the 1520s. Two quite magnificent works survive – extraordinary, wonderful, virtuosic – from a creative mind clearly following the eccentric genius of Robert Carver. Writing, surely, for particular voices that he knew well, Johnson crafted the extended Marian votive antiphon Ave Dei Patris filia for five voices in what Elliott called ‘spacious passages of free counterpoint’, in which full textures contrast with reduced-voice sections in three parts. Even more surprising is Johnson’s longest work at c.16 minutes, the two-voice display piece Laudes Deo, a setting of the troped lesson for Midnight Mass of Christmas, with elaborate decoration and rhythmic effects for the soloists alternating with plainchant. Does this great style-shift imply a gap in which Johnson was not composing, or is it just that material hasn’t survived? Dr Elaine Moohan, who is preparing a volume of Johnson’s works for publication by Musica Scotica, wisely comments about the number of sources that have not come down to us: ‘It’s unfair to compare him to European composers whose works have been so carefully and beautifully preserved.’


This introduces the most intriguing of the musicological mysteries: Ave Dei Patris filia survives, whole or in part, in no fewer than 15 different sources – a stupendous number for a single work by any renaissance composer. Some of the reduced-part sections have been copied separately and some are in different transpositions. One of the three-part sections is found in a source where the soprano is at a different pitch from the two lower voices. Some seem to have been copied for the wealthy and influential Paston family5. These three-voice passages that became independent from the main work could have been sung in private chapels for clandestine Roman Catholic devotions: how ironic from a composer who turned Protestant with such conviction!


Speaking of Protestant stuff, besides his English anthems there are some plain and workmanlike examples of service music by Johnson: Te Deum, Jubilate, Benedictus, Creed, Magnificat, and Nunc dimittis – harmonisations around a cantus firmus in chant-type settings. The only (almost) complete sets of partbooks, two sets for Decani and Cantoris, are in the library of Pembroke College, Cambridge, and there’s another manuscript belonging to Ely Cathedral containing the Te Deum and Jubilate, copied in the 19th century. Some cathedral musician must have brought them into use then, but we know of no connection between Johnson and Pembroke College, so there’s another mystery.


CappellaNovaHolyRude-56 nIs there a unique selling-point for Johnson? If you like Tallis you’ll enjoy his works and there are flashes of complete brilliance, such as a glorious passage of imitation in Gaude Maria Virgo which falls into the ‘tingle factor’ category. It is in his early works for the Roman rite, however, that he seems to find the greatest freedom of expression and creativity.


In 2018 Johnson’s surviving material will at long last be available to all. Kenneth Elliott planned a complete edition for Musica Scotica but died before it could be realised, and the mantle has fallen on the shoulders of Dr Elaine Moohan. As an undergraduate student of Elliott’s she remembers vividly how he used Johnson’s Dum transisset (both versions) as examples, asking students to transcribe them as a study in notation. Her current task has not been so straightforward, she explains: ‘The Musica Scotica Board cleared out Kenneth’s papers and found an enormous box with everything in it: he kept meticulous copies but with no key explaining the system, and there are no dates, just a number at the top, and he’d produced as many as nine versions of some items!’ There were 36 items in the box and a critical commentary, sometimes drafted, sometimes nothing, sometimes only cryptic notes, with nothing definitively in a complete state, as much remained in Elliott’s head when he died. He had also written part of an introduction to the proposed edition in his usual elegant style, but left many sections sketchy, annotated with little notes such as ‘check this’ or single-word clues which only he understood.


The first complete edition of his works will be published by Musica Scotica in spring 2018 and offprints will be available as pdfs so that choirs can make copies without buying the whole thing; transpositions will also be available to order. For me, this feels like the culmination of something wonderful: in 1996 I took part in recording the first disc wholly dedicated to Johnson with Cappella Nova, collaborating with Kenneth Elliott, and he wrote in the liner notes that the published edition was ‘forthcoming’. Twenty years on, thanks to Moohan and Musica Scotica, his vision will now be realised.


  1. Thomas Wode Partbooks: Wode, a monk prior to the Reformation, collected harmonisations of the 105 metrical Psalms from the 1564 Scottish Psalter into these partbooks together with other material. Posterity must be eternally grateful to him for also preserving a great many Latin motets from destruction as he feared, with much justification, that ‘musicke sall pereishe in this land alutterlye’.


  1. Mulliner Book (1545-70): an historically important musical commonplace book compiled, probably between about 1545 and 1570, by Thomas Mulliner, about whom practically nothing is known, except that he figures in 1563 as modulator organorum (organist) of Corpus Christi College, Oxford.


  1. ‘Defyled is my name full sore through cruel spite and false report, That I may say for evermore, Farewell, my joy! Adieu comfort! For wrongfully ye judge of me Unto my fame a mortal wound, Say what ye list, it will not be, Ye seek for that cannot be found.’


  1. The fashion for In nomine writing originated in the early 16th century from a six-voice Mass composed before 1530 by John Taverner on the plainchant ‘Gloria Tibi Trinitas’; in the Benedictus section of this Mass, the Latin phrase ‘in nomine Domini’ was sung in a reduced, four-part counterpoint. This attractive passage became popular as a short instrumental piece, and over the next 150 years English composers worked this melody into In nomine pieces of ever greater stylistic range.


  1. The manuscript book compiled by Edward Paston (1550- 1639) sheds light on the musical interests of a Norfolk gentry family of closet Roman Catholics as well as on the circulation of the music of William Byrd.


Rebecca Tavener is a singer and director specialising in early and contemporary music. She is founder-director of Canty, Scotland’s only professional medieval music group

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