Wode show reveals music's central role in society
Amid all the enthusiasm for the great revival in choral singing, and the particular example of the blooming National Youth Choir of Scotland network, there is a pertinent exhibition that warrants a flood of last-minute attendance before it closes on Friday.
Singing the Reformation, at Edinburgh University Library in the capital's George Square, is a revelation. It is based around the Partbooks of Thomas Wode, a pragmatic clergyman of the 16th century whose publications predate the King James Bible, the 400th anniversary of which has been much marked this year.
Wode, who was a Catholic monk before the Protestant Reformation when he swapped codes, created his harmonisations of the Psalms to the commission of Lord James Stewart, half brother of Mary Queen of Scots and Scotland's Regent when James VI was an infant. The most complete set of his four-part settings is in the special collection of the university, but fascinating early music and other publications from elsewhere are in the show, which reveals how culturally sophisticated Scotland was in these turbulent times.
It was also more tolerant than might be supposed, as Wode and his associates included “papist” music with the Psalter, supposedly the sole permitted songbook of Knox's Calvinist church.
With associated craftwork and instruments in the remarkable compact narrative display, this remains essentially a show about music, and the central place it has always had in Scottish society.
Wode's notation may be impenetrable to most players now, but it is clearly related, and so too was the desire to have young people trained in music. Only a couple of decades after choirboys went the way of all Romanish flourishes, James VI passed the Act of Timeous Remeid (which is in the exhibition) re-establishing “songschools” across Scotland at public expense. Now there's a historic decision to emulate.