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Singing in St Andrews…it’s in the genes
(follow this link for the accompanying playlist)

It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that singing is part of St Andrews’ DNA. The presence of St Andrew’s relics in the Middle Ages inspired such vast numbers of pilgrims that a new, vast Cathedral was built to replace the existing church of St Regulus. Its construction took fully 200 years before completion in 1318. During the construction period, Bishop Malveison commissioned, for the Augustinian monastery (or perhaps an associated college of secular canons), a richly decorated copy of polyphonic vocal compositions from the first flowering of such music; the ‘organum’ associated with Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.  Now considered the earliest known source for the Notre Dame school, the music in the St Andrews Music Book would have been a means to enrich the liturgy and prestige of the Cathedral in St Andrews, in a manner inspired by Notre Dame. Containing over 300 pieces, the manuscript, laboriously copied in St Andrews, now resides in Wolfenbüttel, where it has been since the late 16th century. ‘Vir Perfecte’ is a Responsory for the Feast of St Andrew, perhaps composed by a local composer in imitation of the Notre Dame style.


Another extraordinary collection of vocal music deeply rooted in St Andrews’ history is the Wode Psalter. Indeed it would be hard to think of a collection more closely linked to the Reformation in Scotland and St Andrews’ role in it. Thomas Wode himself had been a monk at nearby Lindores but was prompted to become a Protestant clergyman when the Reformation arrived in Fife. Having moved to St Andrews in 1562, three years after John Knox’s sermon at Holy Trinity had prompted the desecration of the Cathedral,  he himself became Minister at Holy Trinity in 1575. Wode’s collection includes harmonisations, by the leading Scottish composer David Peebles, of the 105 ‘new’ Psalm melodies for use in Protestant worship. Peebles had, until the Reformation, been a canon at St Andrews Cathedral. Wode collected these into a set of part books which survive, in various locations, today. He was also driven by a desire to preserve Scottish sacred music from the ravages of the Reformation and his book includes polyphonic settings of Latin texts by Peebles and by Robert Johnson, as well as music from further afield by Lassus, Tallis and Palestrina. ‘Of Mercy and Judgement Both’ is a polyphonic setting by Andrew Blackhall who, like Wode, had been a monk (at Holyroodhouse Abbey in Edinburgh) and later became a Protestant clergyman.


The Reformation would also significantly interrupt the succession of choral activity in the University’s chapel; a tradition with its roots in the mid 15th century when certain students known as the Choristi Sanctiandree were obliged to sing during the (Catholic) liturgies. It would be the 20th century before an active chapel choir would once again grace St Salvator’s and for many years, it lived somewhat in the shadow of other University vocal ensembles. These included the still-extant Renaissance Group, founded and directed by the inimitable Douglas Gifford, whose work with the group included the pioneering first recordings of music by the great 16th century Scottish composer Robert Carver. Nevertheless, the chapel music making had, for many years, a distinct identity thanks to the remarkable figure of Cedric Thorpe-Davie, a pupil of Vaughan Williams and Kodaly and a close friend of Gerald Finzi. Thorpe Davie served successively as Master and Professor of Music as well as composing film scores for Walt Disney.  In contrast to today, members of the choir in the 1960s and 70s attest to the slow study of a limited repertoire. Nevertheless, that repertoire was innovative in its span, including Bach cantatas, early polyphony, such central European curiosities as Liszt’s ‘Ossa arida’ for male voices and organ duet, works by Thorpe Davie’s teachers and by Thorpe Davie himself. The latter’s most durable liturgical composition, often sung under his direction in St Andrews, is a setting of words by George Wither, ‘Come, Holy Ghost, the Maker’. 


Today, St Andrews has more musical activity than Thomas Wode, or perhaps even Cedric Thorpe Davie, could ever have imagined. Singing, however, remains central, whether ‘town’ or ‘gown’. Venerable groups, such as the Renaissance Singers (this year celebrating their 65th anniversary) or the student-run Madrigal Group continue to thrive. The Music Society supports its own chamber choir and the town/gown St Andrews Chorus is the largest choral society in Scotland. The considerable proportion of American students has engendered a vibrant close harmony a cappella community, the most ambitious of whose groups record commercially. The chapel choir, now entirely supported by scholarships, tour internationally and release CDs on their own label with world-wide distribution. The University’s Music Centre has no fewer than four singing teachers in addition to the Head of Vocal Studies, all providing weekly one-to-one lessons while, in addition to student-run opera and G&S societies, the Music Centre’s own opera company has presented professionally directed, produced and accompanied chamber opera productions for 10 years.


Where better for a festival celebrating the voice in all its guises?

Chris Bragg
Head of Programming
University of St Andrews
October 2020

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