Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

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Haiku Wednesday: New Songs from 1000 Years Ago

Medieval manuscript depicting musicians, from Boethius's book De Musica

A leaf from Boethius’s book De Musica

Underground rivers
Course in ancient passages
Undeterred by time.

Neumes flow on the page
In forgotten passages,
Unheard—until now.

Carefully the notes
Are traced and coaxed from hiding
To sound once again.

Flow and dance again,
River of sound, and so quench
Our thirst for knowledge.

After decades of work, University of Cambridge researcher Dr. Sam Barrett has made a breakthrough that has brought once silent neumes back to life.

Barrett has been studying and gathering as many manuscripts containing neumes as possible and assessing them in terms of musical performance and music setting practices of the neume era.

Of particular interest was a manuscript known as the Cambridge Songs. The 11th-century Cambridge Songs manuscript includes a setting of parts of a poem by the Roman philosopher Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy. You can read it in English here.

But there was one problem.  There was a page missing from the manuscript.

By chance, the page was rediscovered in Frankfurt.  A scholar had cut out the page in 1840 and taken it home.  This page was a tipping point in the research.  It made it possible to reconstruct the songs.  You can read the University of Cambridge article on the discovery here.  Here is the page.

Leaf from the Cambridge Songs manuscript containing The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius with neumes

Leaf from the Cambridge Songs manuscript containing The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius with neumes

Barrett partnered with Benjamin Bagby of the group Sequentia to test whether interpretations of the neumes were feasible given the limitations imposed by instruments of the time, as well as by human hands and voice.

You may not be hearing on the radio anytime soon, but you can hear an excerpt of The Consolation of Philosophy here now.  You can follow the words using the manuscript.



Image attribution

A page from Boethius’s De musica.  Manuscript of the University of Cambridge (MS Ii.3.12, ff.73v-74).