Music’s ephemeral nature—the fact that it vanishes as soon as it comes into being—makes studying music of the past a difficult task. Medieval and early modern readers and musicians did not, in general, think of music in terms of musical works that could endure in a permanent state, to be resurrected in repeated performances spanning centuries; they often thought very little of music of the past, preferring recent compositions over music that was centuries old and discarding sources of such ancient music. Changes to Church liturgy required the replacement of the books containing older forms of worship and any musical notation they contained. Paper and parchment were expensive, so the discarded manuscripts were often cut up and used to bind other books. The survival of every fragment of medieval music is serendipitous, and it is thanks to the work of bookbinders and librarians that much medieval music, in however fragmentary a form, comes down to us today. The task of the musicologist is one of piecing together (sometimes literally) the fragments of a rich, complex and often confusing musical past.
While not telling us exactly how music might have sounded, musical scores of the past can nevertheless yield a great deal of information about how past musicians, readers, collectors and librarians thought about music. The purpose of the notation in a musical score, its value and prestige within a specific milieu, and the way that later generations viewed old music can all be inferred from the close study of music sources. Key to this kind of work is the consideration not only of what has survived to the present day, but also what has been lost.
The example of the Vetus registrum shows the kind of detective work that medieval musicologists have to master in order to glean as much information as possible from meagre fragments of medieval music. The Vetus registrum has thin strips of parchment in its binding which were originally part of a manuscript of polyphony (several musical lines sung simultaneously). Since it was bound between 1480 and 1520, the polyphony fragments must date to before 1520. The scribal hand confirms this copying date, while the ars nova music notation indicates that the fragments were probably copied in at least three stages in the second half of the fourteenth century and the early fifteenth century. (We can be sure of this date by looking at notation in other sources that can be dated securely). The indication of rhythm and the fact that the staves are made up of five lines (rather than four) tells us that this is polyphony, not plainchant. Finally, the text that accompanies the music is in Latin and on sacred themes. Portions of the text can be matched to three pieces that are copied in other English manuscripts. We can therefore conclude that this is a large manuscript copied in England in the second half of the fourteenth century containing motets, probably to be sung in a monastic establishment.
At least twenty volumes in Lincoln’s collections contain fragments of music manuscripts from the medieval period. Here are some of the highlights.
Leaves from a 15th century English book of polyphony, bound in Meditations on Holy Scripture (England, 15th century). Dunstaple’s motet Beata mater is scored for three voices. The work is devotional, asking the Blessed Virgin Mary to intercede to the Lord on behalf of the singers.
Collection of votive antiphons and mass movements in choirbook format; on paper, with freely ruled staves and void mensural notation with black coloration. CONTENTS: I. Dunstaple or Binchois, Beata mater; II. Anon., Gloria; III. Anon., Kyrie; IV. Anon., Kyrie; V. Anon., Kyrie; VI: Plummer, Descendi in ortum meum; VII. Anon., Kyrie; VIII. Anon., Kyrie; IX. Anon., Kyrie; X. Leonel, Kyrie.
15th century English polyphonic leaf used as front pastedown in Isidore of Seville, Etymologies (England, 13th century).
On parchment, with freely-ruled staves and a range of neumatic and stroke notations. CONTENTS: (recto) I. Regina caeli II. Lux orta est super nos III. Exultet coelum laudibus (verso) IV. Anon., Stella caeli extirpavit (one polyphonic voice); V. Anon., Gloria et honor deo in unitate.
A pastedown is a piece of parchment or paper wrapped round the textblock of a book, which is then glued to the insides of the boards and covering material to keep the textblock securely in place.
Book of polyphony (Cambridgeshire or East Anglia (?), 15th century) formerly used as a wrapper and now bound in with The commonplace book of John Smith (England, early 17th century).
On parchment, with lead point ruling of staves with frame or rostrum, black mensural notation with full red and black void coloration (canticle added later in black void mensural notation). Collection of a mass movement and canticle in choirbook format and a votive antiphon in score format. CONTENTS: I. Richard Frevylle, Nunc dimittis; II. Anon., Kyrie (on Rex Splendens); III. Power (?), Benedicta es celorum.
This leaf has become torn and discoloured by its use as the outer covering of another volume, before it was bound in this book.
Messine or German antiphoner (after 1200) used as front pastedown in the binding of Teseo Ambrogio, Introductio in Chaldaicam lingua[m], Syrica[m] atq[ue] Armenica[m], & dece[m] alias linguas (Pavia: Giovanna Maria Simonetta, 1539).
Responsories for the Office of the dead; on parchment, with freely ruled staves and Messine-Gothic neumatic notation.
One side of the leaf is not visible because it has been glued to the front board; other leaves of plainchant that were bound in as flyleaves have been trimmed, leaving only stubs. And if that weren’t enough, a librarian has pasted a college book plate over the music notation.
Messine or German antiphoner (after 1200) used as cover for Nicolaus Salicetus, Antidotarus anime (Paris: Yolande Bonhomme, 1552).
Matins responsory for Ephiphany; on parchment, with freely-ruled staves in lead point and red ink, and Messine-German neumatic notation.
The frequent handling of this volume has worn away the ink of the text and made the notation difficult to discern.
Messine or German antiphoner (after 1200) used as a binding for Henri Estienne, Glossaria duo (Geneva: Henri Estienne, 1573).
Responsories for the 2nd and 3rd Sundays of Advent; on parchment with freely-ruled staves and Messine-German neumatic notation; initials decorated in red, blue and green.
In this case, how the music looked was far more important than whether it was possible to sing from the music notation. At first glance, it is not obvious that two separate leaves make up the cover. Care has been taken to line up the stave lines and text lines on the leaves, giving the impression that this is a single leaf, but anyone who tried to sing from this would come a-cropper pretty quickly!
Remnants and ink residue from a leaf of a 14th or 15th century missal visible on the wooden board of the Biblia Latina (Cologne: Conrad Winters de Homborch, [1469?]).
Here we no longer have the manuscript that was used as a pastedown, only its image where the ink transferred onto the board beneath. The musicologist’s work is made harder by having to read the traces of the chant in mirror image.
Leaf from a 12th century English missal used as the front pastedown in the binding of Eutropius, Eutropii insigne uolumen quo Romana historia uniuersa describitur. (Basel: Froben, 1532).
ropers from the Sanctorale for the feasts of St Cuthbert (20th March), St Benedict (21st March) and the Annunciation (25th March); on parchment, with Anglo-Norman heighted neumes above chant texts.
Two leaves from a notated missal have been used as pastedowns. The script, rounder than later gothic hands, indicates that these leaves were copied in the twelfth century. Decoration (the use of green in particular) and the presence of the name of the Northumbrian saint Cuthbert suggest an English provenance for these leaves. The size of the text has been reduced in various places to accommodate the addition of neumes (a form of music notation) above the text line, acting as an aide-mémoire for the reader.
Francis Pilkington, The second set of madrigals and pastorals Parts 3,4,5 & 6. London, 1624.
Here the music is neither marginal nor medieval, but comprises one of the very few musical scores in our special collections.
Dr Joseph W. Mason is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at University College Dublin, funded by the Irish Research Council. He completed his undergraduate and doctoral degrees at Lincoln College, after which he spent two years at New College as a Stipendiary Lecturer in Music. Joseph specialises in medieval music, with particular interests in cultural and intellectual history, manuscript studies, and music analysis. He gave the Lincoln Unlocked lecture ‘Music in the Margins’ in Michaelmas Term 2018.