Psalms in Praise of Scotland’s Past

Thomas Wode’s part-books show the centrality of music in Scottish life just before the Reformation

James MacMillan

Even though I was a music student at one of Scotland’s great universities, I managed to bypass many of the composers and musical narratives which had underpinned the Scottish Reformation process. A few years ago I attended an exhibition in the University of Edinburgh of the part-books of Thomas Wode which challenged some of my perceptions and filled in the considerable gaps in my understanding,  explaining the vital continuities, as well as the sharp changes, experienced by Wode himself and his contemporaries in the late 16th century.

It became clear that music and singing were vitally important components in Scottish life at this time. The eight Wode partbooks formed the centrepiece of the exhibition that also displayed a variety of contemporary objects, including books and manuscripts, musical instruments, paintings and maps. The part-books, gathered together for the first time from across the world, constitute a unique treasure within Scotland’s history, containing the only surviving record for most music found in Scotland during this period. Thomas Wode was responsible for producing the four singing parts for the metrical Psalter, so intrinsically vital for the new reformed liturgy of the day. But he added much more music from before 1560 and from various parts of Europe. These part-books are illustrated by him and contain fascinating annotations.

Wode’s life is an encapsulation of the dilemmas and conflicts of the age. He began his ecclesiastical career as a Benedictine monk at Lindores Abbey at Newburgh, Fife and ended it as a Protestant clergyman. Nevertheless the psalms provided a constant thread through his life and that of the lives of all Christians of the day, regardless of how tossed and turned they were by political and ideological power manoeuvres. The material in the exhibition showed the full extent of music’s centrality in the cultural life of Scotland in the late 16th century. I was beguiled by Wode’s own illustrations which indicated how ordinary men and women of the time engaged with word and song in praise of God.

These books preserve one of the most important contributions ever made to Scottish music. As well as his commissioning of new psalm settings in simplified and more homophonic styles suitable for the impending Calvinist age, Wode also included a lot of other music from the time, and crucially from before the great conflagration, and from Scots, English and continental composers. Therefore we are given a glimpse into the musical life of this country at one of its most dangerous hours. The list of composers is astonishing. As well as the Scots, David Peebles, Andro Blackhall, Robert Johnson and Jhone Angus, we find the Englishman Thomas Tallis, who took his own tortured route through the Reformation down south, and continentals like Clemens non Papa, Lassus, Arcadelt and Palestrina.

These composers especially are not immediately associated in the public imagination with the reformed Scottish Church, which took its worship models from Geneva and emphasised the simplest form of unaccompanied psalm singing. However, as Noel O’Regan writes,

The tide did not turn right away and there were experienced singers and musicians in the Chapel Royal and elsewhere who would have welcomed harmonised psalms and canticles . . . He proceeded to use the remaining pages [of his part-books] to build up an anthology of polyphonic music from a variety of sources. As he says in one of his annotations, he was afraid that “musicke sall pereishe in this land alutterlye” and so he set out to preserve as much as he could of it, whether it was pre-Reformation Latin motets by Scottish, English and continental composers, popular religious songs, anthems setting English texts or instrumental dance music.

If only ecclesial, theological and spiritual matters could be left to the leadership and guidance of musicians!

The exhibition of Thomas Wode’s partbooks opened up a new vista of understanding of the Scotland of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. It shone a light on the music that musically-literate Scots of the time loved, and loved performing. These collections are evidence of a flourishing musical culture in Scotland as it began its new phase of retreat and isolation. But music respects neither imposed ideology nor geographical and religious boundaries. Wode’s work shows that Scotland, in spite of everything, was connected to a wider world, and absorbent of the most important European music of the day.

The power and significance of one of his annotations on these books resounds through the centuries to Scots today. He wrote that singing in four or five parts was “meit and apt for musitians to recreat their spirittis when as thay shall be over cum with hevines or any kynd of sadness, not only musitians, but evin to the ignorant, of a gentle nature, hearing shal be conforted and mirry with uss.”

These words by a musician at a time of great trial and trouble can be a manifesto even for future generations as to the power of music — especially so when faced with the depredations of iconoclasm and enforced forgetting. If Scotland has to face more cultural revolutions in the future, I hope there will be new Thomas Wodes around to cultivate in the darkness and to preserve all that is good in the human spirit.

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