1,000-Year-Old Lost Music Reconstructed from Ancient Manuscript
Exactly what music sounded like in the early Middle Ages is unknown, but some scholar-musicians from England performed a piece today that they reconstructed from an 11 th century manuscript.
A page from the manuscript lost for 142 years but later found has helped three researchers rewrite the music as they believe it may have sounded during the Middle Ages.
Cambridge University’s Sam Barrett worked for more than 20 years to reconstruct melodies from the 11 th century “Cambridge Songs,” the final part of an anthology of Latin texts. It was from that manuscript that the leaf was missing. Today an ensemble performed the music at Cambridge for the first time in as long as 1,000 years.
In 1982 the leaf from the manuscript was found by an English scholar visiting a Frankfurt, Germany, library. In 1840, a German scholar had visited Cambridge and cut the leaf out of the “Cambridge Songs” manuscript and returned to Germany with it. Perhaps he thought the Germans were entitled to it because the songs originated in the Rhineland in the 11 th century.
The music performed at Cambridge today is set to Roman philosopher Boethius’ master work, “The Consolation of Philosophy,” which he wrote in the 6 th century while he was under house arrest awaiting execution for treason.
From a 1385 Italian manuscript of the ‘Consolation of Philosophy’: Miniatures of Boethius teaching and in prison (public domain)
Just exactly what the music would have sounded like centuries ago is unknown, says an article about the music in the Daily Mail. Between the 9 th and 13 th centuries, composers wrote music in neumes, which are not notes as we know them today. In addition to the neumes, people of the time relied on musicians’ memories of the tunes and passed them down.
Medieval composers set down many passages from the classics of Virgil and Horace, late antique authors, medieval texts and love songs and laments, the Daily Mail says.
But today’s musician’s can’t just pick up a piece of medieval music, read it and play it because they don’t know the pitches of the neumes, or how high or low the sounds are. On today’s music scale, pitch is measured by putting lower-sounding notes lower on the scale and higher notes higher.
An example of neumes notation (public domain)
“This particular leaf – 'accidentally' removed from Cambridge University Library by a German scholar in the 1840s – is a crucial piece of the jigsaw as far as recovering the songs is concerned,” Dr. Barrett told the Daily Mail. “After rediscovering the leaf from the Cambridge Songs, what remained was the final leap into sound. The traces of lost song repertoires survive, but not the aural memory that once supported them. We know the contours of the melodies and many details about how they were sung, but not the precise pitches that made up the tunes.”
Dr. Barrett worked out parts of the melody for “The Consolation of Philosophy” and then worked with Benjamin Bagby of the Lost Songs Project and of Sequentia, a trio that has reconstructed other medieval songs. The Lost Songs Project has brought back songs from the distant past, including Beowulf and Carmina Burana, the Daily Mail says.
Dr. Barrett and Mr. Bagby, working with Sequentia member Hanna Marti, tested out practical requirements of the voice and instruments and then compared them to scholarly theories to reconstruct the music of “The Consolation of Philosophy.”
Scholars don’t know if Boethius ever set his magnum opus to music, though he did write about music in other documents. People in the Middle Ages, however, set the poetic parts of “The Consolation of Philosophy” and other writers’ verse to music.
A passage from “The Consolation of Philosophy” that may have spoken to Boethius own plight says:
If the bird who sings so lustily upon the high tree-top, be caught and caged, men may minister to him with dainty care, may give him cups of liquid honey and feed him with all gentleness on plenteous food; yet if he fly to the roof of his cage and see the shady trees he loves, he spurns with his foot the food they have put before him; the woods are all his sorrow calls for, for the woods he sings with his sweet tones.
These words are attributed to Philosophy herself. An English translation of the full text of “The Consolation of Philosophy” is here in PDF format.
Boethius teaching his students from folio 4r of a manuscript of the Consolation of Philosophy (Italy?, 1385) (public domain)
Boethius is believed to have come from an influential family whose ancestors included two Roman emperors and consuls. He lived during the reign of the Ostrogoth King Theodoric the Great, who ruled Italy. Boethius came to Theodoric’s attention because of his great learning. Boethius’ sons were appointed as consuls, and Boethius himself became magister officiorum—the head of government and court administration, says Philosphers.co.uk, which states:
Boethius’s political career seemed bright before he lost Theodoric’s favour in 523. At the Royal Council meeting in Verona in the same year, he spoke in defence of former consul Caecina Decius Faustus Albinus who was accused of treason and conspiring with the Byzantine Emperor Justin I. Boethius’s support to his colleague, however, didn’t help either of the two because soon, Boethius was accused of the same crime. Three men stepped forward as witnesses and confirmed the accusations against Boethius. He was arrested and imprisoned in Pavia for one or two years before he was executed for treason. He was buried in San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro, an Augustinian church in Pavia.
The Consolation of Philosophy is considered the last great work of the Classical era. “The Consolation of Philosophy” was one of the most-read works and influential works of the medieval age. It concerns how there can be evil in God’s world, fickle fortune and the nature of God and happiness.
Featured image: The new performance has music set to the poetic portions of Roman philosopher Boethius' magnum opus The Consolation of Philosophy. Credit: Cambridge University Library.
By Mark Miller