Richt soir opprest

Richt soir opprest am I with paines smart

Both night and day makand my wofull moan

Anonymous 

 

‘Richt soir opprest’ is the earliest lyric I have chosen of the five. It dates to the reign of King James V (1512–1542). Helena Mennie Shire and Kenneth Elliott both observe its “Franco-Scottish style”[1] as a “polyphonic chanson” [2] – this is indicative of the strength of the link between Scotland and France at this time. Political alliances often dictated the direction of royal matches and through a series of constitutional manoeuvres James V was very nearly married to Catherine de Medici “a marriage whose consequences would have been remarkable.” [3] In the end, James was married to Madeleine de Valois, the daughter of King Francis I, who died just six months into their marriage (1537). He then married the daughter of Claude de Lorraine, Marie de Guise within twelve months of Madeleine’s death. It is inevitable that these French queen consorts would have had an immediate impact on the life of the court, its entertainment and recreational activities.

‘Richt soir opprest’ has no comparative textual or musical version originating in France [5] so its origins are most likely Scottish. The question remains whether the lyrics were written to fit the music or vice versa, and as there is no record of the specific musician who created the melody, musicologists cannot be sure whether a Scottish hand penned the song in a French style or a French musician formed this melody for Scottish lyrics.

Although ‘Richt soir opprest’ is written in the vernacular Scots of the time, the language of this lyric contains many words (or ‘borrowings’) from medieval French, such as the repetition of the refrain

But to the death bound cairfull creatour. [6]

Musical study had its place in the royal household. The famous scholar Erasmus was a tutor to the illegitimate son of King James IV, Alexander Stewart. He reported that, in addition to his twelve-year-old charge’s extensive studies in rhetoric, law, Latin and Greek “he would study music, playing the monochord, the recorder or the lute. Sometimes he would sing.” [7]

The young James V, raised to be the future monarch, was “taken ‘frome the sculis’” and “grew up with small Latin”[8] in comparison to the education of his older half-brother. As “ischar [usher] to the Prince”[9] the poet David Lindsay was close to the young James V. Lindsay writes in Testament of the Papyngo (1530) that James had the “capacitie / To lerne to playe so plesandlie, and syng”[10] but Thomas Wode, compiler of the Wode Part Books, writes that the monarch

had ane singular gud eir and culd sing that he had never seine before, but his voyce wes rawky and harske. [11]

‘Richt soir opprest’ may have been accompanied by a simple lute or a more elaborate quartet arrangement. Although there is no solid evidence to suggest that the king may have performed this song in particular, the possibility remains, because he was an amateur musician himself, that this inoffensive lyric of heartbreak at the altar of “Venus quein” may have been written for the cultivation of the king as a player as well as for his entertainment as a listener.

With the Reformation of 1560, the Auld Alliance was abandoned, the changes that arose both inside and outside the court had serious repercussions. However, the melody and structure of ‘Richt soir opprest’ remained in the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Scottish people within the pages of Ane compendius buik of godly and spirituall sangis more commonly known as The Gude and Godlie Ballatis. [12] This ‘compendius buik’ was s “a major cultural phenomenon of the Reformation in Scotland.”[13] It was intended as a songbook for the newly reformed population. It changed the lyrics to popular songs to reflect the newly established doctrine, for example ‘Richt soir opprest’ becomes a sombre reflection on spirituality.  The lyrics remain in a fixed iambic pentameter to maintain the melodic composition and the familiar refrain of “cairfull creatour” is varied only once.

The Reformers cleverly incorporated religious lyrics into popular secular melodies to create a “godly superstructure” [14] which eventually became the norm and ‘Richt soir opprest’ at least was forgotten for centuries as a secular piece of music.


[1] Helena Mennie Shire, ‘The Making of Court-Song’, Song Dance and Poetry of the Court of Scotland Under King James VI (Cambridge University Press, [1969] 2010), pp. 34–43, 38.

[2] ibid.

[3] Jenny Wormald, Court, Kirk and Community: Scotland 1470-1625 (Edinburgh University Press, 1981), p. 5.

[4] ibid.

[5] Shire, p. 38.

[6] DSL, creatour, n, 2a. and OED, creature, 2a.

[7] Margaret Mann Phillips, The ‘Adages’ of Erasmus: A Study with Translation, (Cambridge, 1964) pp. 305-06.

[8] Shire (1996), p. 127.

[9] Treasurer’s Accounts, IV, 269.

[10] Lyndsay, David, ‘The Testament of the Papyngo’ Selected Poems, ed. Janet Hadley Williams, (Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 2000), pp. 58-97, 68.

[11] Shire, (1969) p. 266.

[12] The gude and godlie ballatis, ed. Alasdair A. MacDonald, (Scottish Text Society, 2015) p. 197.

[13] Shire, (1969) p. 25.