The anonymous Mass Cantate Domino for six voices (#1-4) is recorded in an incomplete set of part-books of about 1550, traditionally linked with Dunkeld Cathedral, but more likely originating in the collegiate chapel of Lincluden, Dumfriesshire. Much has had to be done to complete the music: the bass part is missing throughout and three other voices are more or less fragmentary towards the end. The style of the music is 'British decorative' of the earlier sixteenth century with its characteristic mixture of florid and imitative counterpoint. On closer examination, however, the work may be of Scottish origin: the music is directly related to the five-part Mass Fera pessima by Robert Carver, finest Scottish composer of sacred music in the early sixteenth century. I suggest that the present Mass is a reworking of about 1525 for six voices, possibly by Carver himself, of the earlier five-part composition: much thematic material is common to both works, though the six-part shows a more assured technical command. It is a cyclic Mass in the established tradition: each movement opens with the same head-motif and each is based on the same cantus firmus - a plainsong melody, as yet unidentified. Also, traditionally, the music has been arranged to alternate full and solo sections. It is an impressive work, and if by Carver - it is certainly very good Carver.
Carver's Mass Fera pessima for five voices of perhaps about 1525 has many stylistic affinities with the Mass L'Homme armé. It is another cantus firmus Mass (that is, one based on a recurring melody, often in longer notes and traditionally placed in the tenor), and it is also cyclic like the Mass for six voices in that each movement begins with a few bars of the same musical material.
Carver's Mass Pater creator omnium for four voices is precisely dated 1546 in the manuscript source. It is something of a curiosity, revealing on the one hand a desire by the composer to accommodate progressive ideas about clear word-setting and harmonic, chordal idioms, and on the other a reversal to his earlier decorative style. What music may have intervened between the Mass Fera pessima of about 1525 and this work is sadly lost, but may have revealed evidence of the radical stylistic changes that seem to have occurred.
Carver's Mass for six voices of about 1515 is constructed on the familiar pattern of clearly-defined sections for different combinations of voices. Those in six parts for full choir are weighty and sonorous, freely contrapuntal, but occasionally introducing imitative detail between the voices, and only very occasionally more solidly structural imitation. Individual parts are always beautifully shaped, constantly crossing within a wide range, and eminently singable, in spite of occasional harmonic constraints, and the overall effect is one of much sensuous sonority. And in the very last measures of the final Agnus Dei there is a wonderfully effective use of imitation at the same pitch.
Carver's Mass L'Homme armé for four voices of about 1520 follows the time-honoured practice of basing a musical composition on a pre-existing melodic 'scaffolding', as it were - in this case the famous French popular song much set by fifteenth- and sixteenth-century European composers. Carver was in fact the only British composer to use it as the basis for the composition of a Mass. The text is set in the usual series of well-defined sections for four voices (full) alternating with those for three and two (solo). And while those for four are freely decorative, the solo sections are again often much more elaborate and contain imitative effects of detail between the voices
All Carver's surviving works are contained in a large manuscript choirbook assembled over several decades and now housed in the National Library of Scotland. According to various inscriptions Carver describes himself as "dominus", "canonicus de Scona" and three times "alias Arnat". New information has recently come to light regarding the date of birth and later period of activity of the composer's life'. It now appears that Carver was born in 1484/5 and was still living in 1568. In musical terms Carver's life spans the shift in Britain from the late medieval decorative style to the progressive and internationally current structural imitation of the High Renaissance that seems to have taken place in Scotland in the 1520s and 30s. Of course there were many intervening stages along the way, in Carver's case some even appearing alongside one another in the same work.