Front Quad of Lincoln College, the walls covered in bright green ivy

Music in the Margins

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.

Cropped out of focus image of an open book, Vetus Registrum

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.

Collection of votive antiphons and mass movements in choirbook format (England, 15th century)
Musical score on the page of a choirbook
15th century English polyphonic leaf
Musical score on the page of a choirbook
15th century English book of polyphony
15th century English book of polyphony. On parchment, with lead point ruling of staves with frame or rostrum, black mensural notation with full red and black void coloration.
Responsories for the Office of the dead (after 1200)
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. A college book plate has been pasted over the music notation.
Matins responsory for Ephiphany (Messine or German, after 1200)
A small closed manuscript
Responsories for the 2nd and 3rd Sundays of Advent
Messine or German antiphoner (after 1200) used as a binding for Henri Estienne, Glossaria duo
Proper preface for mass of the Apostles (14th or 15th century?)
Remnants and ink residue from a leaf of a 14th or 15th century missal visible on the wooden board of the Biblia Latina
Leaf from an English missal, 12th century
Leaf from a 12th century English missal used as the front pastedown in binding
Francis Pilkington, The second set of madrigals and pastorals Parts 3,4,5 & 6. London, 1624
Francis Pilkington, The second set of madrigals and pastorals, with text on the left and musical score on the right

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.