Musicians, researcher bring Middle Ages music back to life

"Without this extraordinary piece of luck, it would have been much, much harder to reconstruct the songs," said researcher Sam Barrett.

By Brooks Hays

CAMBRIDGE, England, April 25 (UPI) -- With the help of a trio of classical musicians, Cambridge researcher Sam Barrett has resurrected a series of songs from the Middle Ages -- a task thought impossible.

Hundreds of Latin songs were transcribed as neumes, written musical notations, during the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, the method for musical notation was different then and did not specify exact pitch.


Medieval neumes featured melodic outlines but not exact notes. Playing sheet music from the time period required musicians to call upon knowledge passed down through aural traditions -- traditions that died out during the 12th century.

"Neumes indicate melodic direction and details of vocal delivery without specifying every pitch and this poses a major problem," Barrett said in a new release.

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"The traces of lost song repertoires survive, but not the aural memory that once supported them," Barrett continued. "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."

After piecing together as much as could be derived from ancient musical theory about Middle Ages neumes, Barrett recruited Sequentia, a three-piece group dealing in Middle Ages song, to help him work out the ideas on period instruments.


"Ben tries out various possibilities and I react to them -- and vice versa," Barrett said of his working relationship with Sequentia co-founder Benjamin Bagby. "When I see him working through the options that an 11th century person had, it's genuinely sensational."

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"He brings the human side to the intellectual puzzle I was trying to solve during years of continual frustration," Barrett added.

Specifically, Barret and Bagby set out to revive "The Consolation of Philosophy," an epic written by Roman philosopher Boethius -- his magnum opus.

The project wouldn't have been possible without the rediscovery of a missing pages from Cambridge Songs, an anthology of Latin texts compiled in the 11th century. A Germanic scholar had cut out the page in 1840, and it was missing for more than a century.

In 1982, the page was discovered by chance in the archives of the Frankfurt library by Liverpool University academic Margaret Gibson.

"Without this extraordinary piece of luck, it would have been much, much harder to reconstruct the songs," said Barrett. "The notations on this single leaf allow us to achieve a critical mass that may not have been possible without it."

Sequentia performed the song at Cambridge's Pembroke College Chapel over the weekend.


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