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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Researcher reconstructs 1,000 year old ‘lost’ music from ancient manuscript | RedOrbit

"After more than 20 years of research, songs from the Middle Ages are now being played for the first time in 1000 years." inform Susanna Pilny, science writer for redOrbit.

Photo: University of Cambridge

All of this is thanks to Cambridge researcher Sam Barrett, who has been working painstakingly for years to reconstruct the music of a Latin text from the Cambridge Songs—an 11th century manuscript combining classical texts (as in ancient Roman and Greek authors) with a special kind of musical notation known as neumes.

As is occasionally done today (like the song to help you remember the three kinds of rock in a cringey way), music was a popular way to memorize texts—such as the Latin text, The Consolation of Philosophy by Roman philosopher Boethius, from the Cambridge Songs. Neumes—symbols that represented music in the Middle Ages—were a way of recording how the songs sounded.

Carmina qui quondam (excerpt) - Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy I:1 

Recreating old tunes
Reconstructing this music, then, seems simple—all you should have to do is look at the neumes, right? Sadly, it wasn’t this easy; there were two huge catches that kept the songs from being fully realized.

First, unlike something like guitar tab, neumes did not record notes—they were more musical outlines, and medieval musicians relied entirely on memory and traditions to play music. And once this died out in the 12th century, there was no one left to remember how these songs were supposed to sound.

“Neumes indicate melodic direction and details of vocal delivery without specifying every pitch and this poses a major problem,” said Barrett in a Cambridge statement. “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.”

The second major problem: The Cambridge Songs manuscript was missing a page.

“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,” said Barrett.

Source: RedOrbit and Cambridge University Channel (YouTube)