Landmarks in Scottish Church Music: Giving the Congregation a Voice (The Reformation in Scotland)

Douglas Galbraith continues his series ‘Landmarks in Scottish Church Music’ by taking us through The Reformation.

Pub quiz time! Who said this? ‘The custom of singing and playing in church was introduced for carnal minds… not for spiritual;… By such music which is now performed in almost the whole world, we (argue) that the souls of listeners are not excited to devotion but… are weakened by the frivolity, vanity and delight of the music and turn away from devotion.’ No, not John Knox thundering from the pulpit but several decades before the Reformation happened – a certain Canon Robert Richardson very much part of the old church.

The stereotype of the Reformers is that they purged all colour and the celebration from the church's worship, if not from life in general, and with it the joy of making music. In fact, there had already been a new sensibility moving in Europe which feared that a growing ornateness in musical settings was obscuring the sense and meaning of the words. Simple note-for-syllable music was preferable for liturgical use.

Also part of the stereotype is the charge that the Reformers destroyed buildings, windows and artefacts in churches. Certainly some hotheads sometimes took things too far, in spite of directives from on high which reminded people of the obvious – that we still needed the buildings to meet in and windows to keep out the draughts. Violent destruction of what belonged to the 'old church' and the sidelining of its clergy was never part of the Scottish Reformation as it was of the English.

Take the example of organs which the Reformers are often accused of banning and destroying. When you examine how organs had been used prior to the Reformation, they had been not so much to accompany congregational singing as to provide insertions into choral music, usually played by one of the singers. 'The medieval organ was not a commodity to support singing, but a solo instrument largely reserved for Sundays and Feast Days, sounding on behalf of the voices in rich sonorities and embellished lines. That festal quality is captured not just in sound but in sight' (Professor John Harper is referring at the end to organs' colourful cases). With a new style of singing, organs became redundant rather than were silenced on principle. It was later, during the tense situation in the second half of the seventeenth century (think Jenny Geddes), that organs, along with other reminders of Anglican or Roman Catholic ways such as statues, vestments and the observance of holy days (‘ceremonies’) were specifically targeted. Typical was the proposal of the Kirk Session of Holyroodhouse (1643) that the organ now lying idle - ‘an unprofitable instrument, scandalous to our profession’ - be sold and the proceeds given to the poor.

Yes, certainly, much was lost that is only now trickling back, but it is quite likely that the disappointment, even grief, felt at the removal of the colourful images, the florid and appealing music, and dramatic gesture, was countered by an undercurrent of excitement about going to worship. For one thing there was the unheard of use of the common language of the people. And instead of gazing at a far altar from which they were kept out by a screen, seeing the 'magic' of bread and wine being changed, as it was understood, into the actual body and blood of Christ, they were drawn round the Table and felt the immediacy of Christ at the Last Supper and shared intimately with him and with each other, handling the sacred elements themselves. But also, rather than a religion that always believed the worst, that hell and at least purgatory awaited all at death, here was a faith which affirmed the forgiveness of God, which, even at the point of the 'fencing of the tables' (warning against eating and drinking unworthily), said that the purpose of this was not to keep out but to welcome and encourage the sinner who repents.

And there were the psalms! The Swiss Reformer John Calvin, lamenting that ‘the prayers of the faithful are so cold’, had made provision for all to sing, and in Scotland John Knox and his colleagues had found in the relocation of song from the choir to the whole assembly their chief expression of the priesthood of all believers, the conviction that all have equal place and equal voice before God. Although Reforming Scots in the years leading up to the decisive events of 1560 were using the English (their Reformation had taken place) prayer book (1552), the Genevan 'book of our common order' was already becoming popular and by 1564 the General Assembly made it official. By an act of parliament of 1579, indeed, if you were a gentleman worth three hundred marks of yearly rent or a yeoman or burgess with five hundred pounds worth of land or goods, you had to own a Bible and a psalm book in 'vulgar language'.

Now the interesting thing is that this book, right from the start, not only included all the psalms, to sing on Sundays and at family prayers, but the tunes as well, sombre stately tunes which we now know as 'Old Hundredth' or 'Old 124th', that is – that tune was the one that used to be sung to Psalm 124 (each psalm had its own tune). By the time of the most famous edition of all, published in 1635, 'common tunes' (which could be sung to several psalms as long as it was in the right metre) were added at the end of the book, tunes we still sing, like Abbey, Dunfermline, French, London New.

Singing was dependent on the precentor, originally called the uptaker or the raiser of the psalm, or sometimes the lettergae – the person who gave the text, and in some churches two-or three-decker pulpits are still in use, which accommodated either the Reader (who conducted the service up until the Minister's sermon) or Precentor or both. At this time, the disruptive procedure of 'lining out' was not in place (the Precentor reciting the words of each line separately in a monotone, then the people repeating, this time to the tune), said to have come to Scotland at the time of the Westminster Assembly when Scotland and England agreed to share a Confession, a Directory for worship, and, in 1650, a Psalter. Miller Patrick, an authority on the psalms, comments that this was not necessary for the Scots, who had their books before them which a higher proportion could, in general, read for themselves. Of course, with this also went a greater ability in earlier days to memorise.

But there were many, people of culture and of course musicians themselves, who realised that with the new theology, the art of music had suffered an eclipse. Sponsored by the Earl of Moray, a former monk from Lindores, Thomas Wode, undertook to edit a new collection of psalm tunes and other settings from the best composers of the day albeit in the new style required. Nevertheless they (who included the Aberdeen Song School Masters referred to in the last issue: John Fethy, Andrew Kemp and John Black, and especially David Peebles of St Andrews), produced music of complexity (such as the very unusual 'Psalms in Reports', where each 'voice' entered in turn), and, what's more, in four or five parts. This influenced the later psalters (the 1635 edition printed all the parts), and it may have been the reason that on a famous occasion when the minister of St Giles', John Durie, returned from exile in 1582, he was greeted at the Netherbow Port with the singing of Psalm 124 by a multitude who accompanied him up Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, singing (in four parts, it is said) ‘till heavin and erthe resonndit’ – when at that time the official book only had the melody.

Very recently, since this famous publication, known as the Wode Psalter (pronounced 'Wood') or The St Andrews Psalter, existed only in individual part books (ie for bass, treble etc) and these separate parts scattered round the world's libraries, the University of Edinburgh launched a project to reunite these books into a single musical score. The outcome, a rich new resource of Scottish music, has been mounted in the Church Service Society's website, where they can not only be downloaded free by choirs but some of them can be listened to on mp3 files.

One result of the adoption of the new – words only – Scottish Psalter in 1650 (still our official metrical psalter) was that tunes were no longer to hand and the small group of 'common tunes', which could be used for many psalms, began to dwindle still further. Millar Patrick speaks of the 'great eclipse' that set in, when congregations, and (it has to be said) precentors, only knew a handful of tunes. The precentor who said to the visiting minister, 'I can sing only twa tunes, sir, so ye maunna gie oot three psalms' may not have been alone. No doubt the political situation, when the Jacobites challenged the reigning monarchs, didn't help. All in all, the situation was ripe for revival.

Rev Dr Douglas Galbraith worked in the Church of Scotland Offices between 1995 and 2006 running the former Office for Worship, Doctrine and Artistic Matters. He was founder-editor of the earlier print version of Different Voices. He is currently the Precentor of the General Assembly and is past Convener of, and the current Church of Scotland trustee on, Action of Churches Together in Scotland (ACTS). He is also Secretary of the Church Service Society, which marks its 150th anniversary this year, and helps run the Scottish Churches Organist Training Scheme (SCOTS). To discuss this article or further reading list in more detail, please contact Douglas Galbraith.