'Lost' Medieval Music Performed Again

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April 29, 2016

Some music is old. Some music is really old. A group of musicians performed some really, really old music in Cambridge, England, recently. What they played was 20 years in the making, and the songs they played were 1,000 years old.

The music was “Songs of Consolation,” written to accompany The Consolation of Philosophy, a written work from the Roman philosopher Boethius. The book, one of the most influential works of the Middle Ages, was written in 523. The music was written a few years after that, in the 11th Century.

University of Cambridge senior lecturer Sam Barrett spent a couple of decades deciphering and interpreting the “neumes,” medieval symbols that approximate what modern musicians would recognize as musical notation. The work was slow going because the neumes did not have accompanying pitches or other instructions. Musicians at the time knew what they were doing, but that was because they had committee certain musical patterns to memory; sadly for modern musicians, these medieval musicians did not leave extensive written records of what they remembered or how they played it, despite the popularity of the neumes. Scholars believe that thesongs written in neumes during the Middle Ages numbered in the hundreds.

Barrett’s efforts were also slower than he would have liked because he was working from a manuscript that had a crucial page missing. The page had been part of the original manuscript, held in the Cambridge library, but had been missing for 142 years. A chance find in a library in Frankfurt resulted in the reunion of the missing page with its parent, and Barrett was able to finish his opus.

A main collaborator in Barrett’s work was Benjamin Bagby, a musician who specializes in playing medieval music. Bagby, along with Barbara Thornton, founded a musical group named Sequentia in 1977. Since that time, the group have recorded dozens of albums of medieval works, including works inspired by famous writing like Beowulf.

And it was Sequentia who brought Barrett’s labor of love to life in a public performance at Cambridge’s Pembroke College Chapel.

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