Imagine yourself in a time with no sound recordings: no CDs, no vinyl, no YouTube, no Spotify. Now imagine how you would feel about music that was composed and sung 40 or more years ago, before you were born. You would have no conception of how that music sounded, since the performers of that music are long dead and music vanishes as soon as it comes into being. And what’s more, you probably wouldn’t care about decades-old music at all.
This way of thinking about music seems so foreign to us today, we who live in an age where recordings are ubiquitous and music can truly be captured forever. But for medieval people, there was no access to the sound of music from the past. Music is ephemeral—that’s one of the things that make it special—and that makes it difficult to capture. Music notation is a trace of live music, but is not the same as musical sound itself. It’s therefore not surprising that medieval people did not think highly of musical compositions that they had never heard, and thought even less of the books in which such music was notated. The result of this relationship with music of the past? A throwaway-attitude towards music books.
Musicologists interested in the medieval period are faced with a difficult task as a result of this throw-away thinking. Historical musicologists gather information about historic musical practices by looking at documents and scores, but in the case of medieval music, most musical scores were considered worthless by subsequent generations and were cut up, recycled or destroyed. Medieval musicologists must therefore piece together (sometimes literally) fragmentary information in a painstaking and often frustrating process. Ultimately, there are some questions about medieval music that we will never be able to answer because too much has been lost.
But before things take too pessimistic a tone, let’s not forget that many musical scores from the Middle Ages have survived as fragments in the bindings of later books. Lincoln has at least twenty volumes that contain fragments of music manuscripts from the medieval period. In many of these cases, the survival of these fragments is thanks to the value of parchment, rather than the value of the music that is transmitted on it.
In this Chaldaic dictionary, leaves from a book of plainchant (ritual songs of the Church) have been recycled in the binding process. The material properties of the strong and sturdy parchment have ensured the survival of this leaf of plainchant, which was of little interest to readers in the sixteenth century when this volume was bound. 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 cut away, leaving only stubs. And if that weren’t enough, a librarian has pasted a college book plate over the music notation. For successive users and readers of this book, the music notation was really of no interest whatsoever.
In other books, music manuscripts were re-used for aesthetic reasons. One sixteenth-century glossary is particularly striking, covered in leaves from a chant book. It’s easy to imagine why these particular leaves might have been selected to cover this volume. Two large and ornate initials, one on the front and one on the rear, were probably chosen for their beauty. Careful attention has also been paid to the way the music notation is included. At first glance, it is not obvious that two separate leaves make up the cover. Whoever bound this book has taken care to line up the stave lines and text lines on the two leaves to give the impression that this is a single piece of parchment. In this case, how the music looked was far more important than whether it was possible to sing from the music notation. (Anyone who tried to sing from this would come a-cropper pretty quickly!)
What might a musicologist look for in fragments like these? Even though some of these fragments are small, damaged and incomplete, there is a lot of information that can be gleaned from them. I’ll take the Vetus registrum as an example, the college’s first record book. Images of the book are available online here. 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 the Vetus registrum was bound between 1452 and 1472, the polyphony fragments must date to before 1472. The scribal hand confirms this pre-1472 copying date, while the ars nova music notation indicates that the fragments were copied in the first half of the fourteenth 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 but does not seem to have sacred content. We can therefore conclude that this is a manuscript copied in England in the first half of the fourteenth century containing polyphonic music, probably motets.
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 music of the past is lost to us, just as it was for those medieval people who recycled and destroyed music manuscripts for which they had no use. Unlike those medieval people, musicologists are interested in musical practice at all historical junctures and therefore have to make the best of a bad situation. But as these examples from the Lincoln collections show, it’s surprising what you can find out from a small scrap of parchment.
Dr Joseph Mason is a musicologist with research interests in medieval and early modern Europe, the history of music manuscripts and the history of music performance. He recently completed his doctorate at Lincoln College on thirteenth-century French vernacular song and is currently a stipendiary lecturer in Music at New College, Oxford.