Rare Musical Manuscripts Reunited after 400 Years

Posted on: 31 August 2011

A collection of 16th century musical manuscripts by the celebrated Scottish cleric Thomas Wode were displayed together for the first time in 400 years at an exhibition at the University of Edinburgh.  The eight manuscripts, which are usually housed at Trinity College Dublin, Georgetown University in the US, and the British Library in London, have joined those held by the University of Edinburgh and the National Library of Scotland to form part of an exhibition entitled ‘Singing the Reformation’. 

The exhibition aims to provide an insight into Scottish history and promote public appreciation of Scottish culture.  Speaking about Trinity College’s role, Keeper of Manuscripts at TCD Bernard Meehan said: “It is always a pleasure as a curator to take part in projects which reunite scattered materials physically in exhibitions and remotely through digitisation and web access.  Such projects are attractive for the public and for scholars alike.  In Trinity College Library we had such an experience in 2007 with the Annals of Four Masters.  In the case of the Wode Psalter, my personal links with Edinburgh University made the project all the more involving.  To see the Trinity College Library volume take its place among Wode’s other books for the first time in 400 years was a most thought-provoking experience, displayed as it was among other books of the period, with clear, scholarly and attractive explanatory panels, and with the music itself heard in the background, newly recorded as part of the project.”

Thomas Wode was a Catholic monk turned Presbyterian minister.  He composed the elaborately decorated manuscripts, which include illustrations of Renaissance musicians, angels and bestial creatures, between 1562 and 1592 in the aftermath of the Reformation.  The manuscripts form part of an important musical legacy of one of the most turbulent periods in Scottish history.  Without Wode’s efforts, much of the music heard in the Royal Court and in Scotland’s churches would have been lost forever.  

The Reformation transformed worship from priests singing complex polyphonic songs in Latin to tunes fit for a congregation to sing together.  Lord James, Earl of Moray, commissioned Wode to compose music that was ‘simple and sweet’ to accompany the singing of the psalms.  The Wode Psalter sets the 106 psalms to four part harmonies.  These harmonisations, which include 106 metrical psalms from the Anglo-Genevan Psalm Book and other songs, created the gold standard for post-Reformation devotion and worship in Scotland.

The exhibition has been organised by the University of Edinburgh’s School of Divinity.  An iPhone app has been developed in support of the exhibition which includes clips of the music contained within the Wode Psalter.  It can be downloaded online.