Spotlight On …

Medieval music!

Written by Victoria Green

On our voyage of discovery over these past few weeks (a.k.a. our 2018 audit), we have been fortunate enough to unbox lots of unique items that we had become unacquainted with. From 16th Century pyx, to beautiful leather cornices and sick notes from the 1950s!

One such item is a leaf from a chant book, possibly from the 13/14th Century. This innocuous little page might look suspiciously like music to you, and you’d be right! On this parchment is a piece of medieval sheet music, the purpose of which is to indicate the pitches/melodies of a song or instrumental piece. This leaf features three illuminations, notated in archaic form.

© National Leather Collection 2018
© National Leather Collection 2018

Musical notation was developed long before parchment was used for writing. In fact, the earliest form of notation can be found on a cuneiform tablet from Nippur, Sumer (modern Iraq) about 2,000 BC. The tablet represents instructions for performing music and notes on its composition. Ancient Greek musical notation was being used from the 6th Century BC, and consisted of symbols placed above text syllables.

Music in medieval England was mostly liturgical or sacred, used for the church. Those with an eye for historical music will be able to tell that this leaf is a section of Gregorian chant. By the 13th Century, the neumes of Gregorian chant were written in square notation on a four-line staff with a clef – as you can see on the National Leather Collection’s example. Groups of ascending notes on a syllable are shown as stacked squares, read from bottom to top, while descending notes are written as diamonds, read from left to right. Chants were sung by monks during Catholic mass, as a re-enactment of Christ’s last supper. Mass provides a spiritual connection between man and God, and chant was important in creating this connection through music.

An illumination of Monks performing Gregorian Chant

Chant or plainsong is a monophonic (single, unaccompanied melody) form, representing the earliest known music of the Christian church. It originated around AD 1101 with Pope Gregory I. Being the religious centre of Western Europe at the time, Rome wanted to standardise the mass and chant across all of its empire. Trained singers were sent across the Holy Roman Empire to teach this new form of chant, which became the eponymous ‘Gregorian Chant’. By the 12th and 13th Centuries, Gregorian chant had superseded almost all other Western forms of chant and became the roots of music as we know it.

Before the 15th Century, Western music was written by hand and preserved in manuscripts, usually bound in large volumes. Unfortunately, with the decline of Catholicism and the popularisation of the printing press, such chant books fell out of use. Perhaps it all had something to do with the popularisation of polyphonic music during the Renaissance, during which ‘partbooks’ (separate books written for each part of the music) became the norm instead.

Through this item, we gain a glimpse into a musical tradition dating back almost 1,000 years. Was one of the last people to hold this leaf a monk? What does the music sound like? Where was it last sung? These are just some of the exciting questions we would love to be able to answer! If you would like to bring Gregorian chant back to life, even just for a few moments, watch the video below.

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