The Theodore Psalter – Medieval manuscripts blog

Beasts, birds and fishes; illustraded page of Theodore Psalter, British Library AddMS 19352

Beasts, birds and fishes; illustrated page of Theodore Psalter, British Library AddMS 19352

From time to time — perhaps too often for everyone’s tastes — these pages feature old manuscripts.

These documents are tucked away in libraries and monasteries around the world; previously mentioned examples range from the National Library of Australia to St Gallen in Switzerland and the Humanist Library in Selestat; there are many more.

Words, music and art

I admit to a fascination with old calligraphic relics, particularly in this context when they combine both psalms and music, preferably with fine calligraphy and a little illumination. Apart from the artistic value, they often expand our understanding of history and the evolution of the practice of singing old texts (e.g.>)

However, these treasures tend to be tucked away in controlled back rooms and access to the real thing is difficult. We are fortunate that so many texts have now been digitised and are readily available online.

British Library blog

A recent post by the British Library manuscripts blog misses out on the music dimension, but it features decorated psalters. It’s worth a re-blog for those interested: Art in the margins: the Theodore Psalter – Medieval manuscripts blog.

Psalm 62, 25 Jan 15 (1)

Ps62 in the TWode Psalter 1564-1625

Psalm 62 in the Wode Psalter 1564-1625; British Library MS33933

This must be in the nature of a little holiday reading, as this psalm and the third Sunday after Epiphany, 25 January 2015, are still some way off.

So using Psalm 62 as an excuse, here is a preliminary note on a manuscript having historical interest — although we shall not be singing it when it finally comes around.

The Wode Psalter

The manuscript shown is an excerpt of Psalm 62 from the an early post-Reformation Scottish psalter.

The web-site of the Wode Project, a University of Edinburgh activity, tells us:

The Wode [pronounced ‘Wood’] or St Andrews Psalter comprises important manuscript musical settings from the Book of Psalms.

Thomas Wode, who was a monk previous to the Reformation in Scotland, collected harmonisations of the 105 metrical psalms from the 1564 Scottish Psalm Book into these partbooks along with other songs, creating the ‘gold standard’ for post-Reformation devotion and worship in Scotland.

The SATB settings are mainly by David Peebles. The page illustrated has only one line of music as it is from a Partbook: Dr James Reid-Baxter at the University of Glasgow has kindly written to provide some useful expert advise:

The Wode Psalter consists of separate partbooks for each voice, which is why I have always resisted the term “Wode Psalter” in favour of “Wode Partbooks”

The collection, built up by Wode over a considerable period, also included 168 sacred songs, canticles, sonnets and rounds.

The psalter is highlighted here not only for its historical interest, particularly to readers with Presbyterian roots, but also since the text is beautiful and easily read (click on images to enlarge). The quality of script and illustrations is probably not regarded by experts as of the highest order, but the sum of the parts is most impressive.

The translation is worth a closer look. In the New Revised Standard Version, verses 1 and 2 read:

For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken

In the Scottish Psalm Book we find a different rendering with a pleasing flow and flavour:

Althought my saule has sharply been assalted, yet towards God with silence have I walked; in whome alone all health and hope I see. He is my health and my salvation sure, my strong defence which shall ever indure.

Cloister, Aix-en-ProvenceIn one, both here and in verse 5, the soul waits, in one it walks. NKJV says ‘waits silently’, other versions, ‘made subject’ or ‘at rest’. No single word seems adequately to capture the breadth and depth of this blessed state of being.

The lectionary selection for Year B begins in verse 5 with this soul waiting or walking in silence, and continues to extol divine virtues, dependability and justice.

A later post will look again at the text and music choices of the day.

Additional historical notes  Continue reading

Psalm 105, 27 July 14

Psalm 105 from the St Albans Psalter, 12th century. Image: Wikimedia commons

Psalm 105 is a song of praise, as indeed are 106 and 107 that follow. The opening lines sound familiar, as such phrases occur throughout the Bible:

Confitemini Domino et invocate nomen ejus

Give glory to the Lord, and call upon his name

The next verse narrows the focus to set the theme as historical narrative, evidence that has provided confidence for such praise:

Annuntiate inter gentes opera ejus

Declare God’s deeds among the peoples.

Perhaps this is why the lectionary gives us the opportunity to revisit this psalm several times in coming weeks, with slightly differing verse selections. It recurs on 10 and 31 August, then on 21 September. This provides an opportunity for continuity, using the same style and response for all four appearances of this psalm.


The illustration from the  St Alban’s psalter above is in Latin (click on all photos to enlarge). Why the quotes in Latin this week, you ask? There’s a beautiful five-part setting of Psalm 105 in that language by the towering Roland de Lassus (Orlando di Lasso, c.1530 – 94) who, together with Palestrina in Italy, Byrd in England and Victoria in Spain, was one of the pillars of Late Renaissance music – see previous Crystal Ball post.

Works written for five voices are not everyday fare around South Woden; it is beautiful but demanding music. However, the Psalm Team has assembled a small group of experienced singers to present this centuries-old musical gem for your edification on 10 August.

Regrettably, these motets are rarely heard in Canberra, so that presentation on 10 August will be all the richer – note the date now! (It’s also a commissioning service for new Councillors). A separate post on the subject of this wonderful composer will follow soon.

A foretaste

I’m getting ahead of myself. This week, tossing the Renaissance ball into the ring, we start just with a small quote from the Lassus work as the response. And why not? — let’s sing it in Latin. The translation (above) will appear in the order of service: Ps105 Response


Gregorian chant was widely used during mediaeval and renaissance times. In step with the style of the day of Lassus, we shall use one of these chants for the verses, on this occasion Tone VIII which looks like this:

Psalm tone VIII

Originating over a thousand years ago and thus before the advent of polyphony, such tones were sung in unison. We observe that ancient practice for the forthcoming sequence of readings of Psalm 105.

A season of history Words are important

Thus we dip into history in a big way – Latin, Lassus and friend Greg from the 16th century. It’s not without precedent even in South Woden; we used this very chant last year to accompany an inspiring work by Hildegard. It’s worth re-reading the post for the psalm of the day here>.

It is also the fourth Sunday this week, so your ever-faithful men’s group await to lead you in this blast from the past. With some difficulty we have resisted the urge to enter stage right in long cloaks and dark cowls.

Seriously, though, the beauty and inspiration of Gregorian chant have been recognised over the centuries. The tones were designed to allow clarity of the words in the vast spaces of cathedrals and monasteries with their reverberant acoustics. Sung by voices in unison they have their own special atmospherics. Contact me if you want to be in it. Continue reading