Medieval Melodies

Medieval Melodies
Through the generous support of donors, the library’s 2014 tax time appeal is funding a special project to enhance access to our medieval manuscripts
30 November 2015

This post was originally written for the regular feature Medieval Manuscripts in The National Library of Australia Magazine.

Medieval Manuscript and Documents

Medieval Manuscripts and Documents from the Nan Kivell Calligraphy Collection 
c. 1000–1819,

Fragments of medieval music manuscripts in the Library’s Rex Nan Kivell calligraphy collection provide intriguing insights into the development of early forms of Western musical notation. The fragments cover a period of 300 years, from the late eleventh to the late fourteenth centuries. In what may be seen as either an act of vandalism or an example of early recycling, they have survived only because they were used as bindings in later publications.

A fragment from a breviary from the late eleventh to early twelfth centuries (above left) provides an example of early musical representation in the form of neumatic notation. Developed in the monasteries by the middle of the ninth century, the notation consisted of neumes, or marks, placed above words or syllables, providing a symbolic representation of the melody to be sung. Neumes did not give guidance as to exact pitch, rhythm or intervals between tones but, rather, outlined the course of the melody by indicating the rise and fall of the music. Because of this, it is thought that they acted as an aide-mémoire for a melody that had been learned through oral traditions.

Over the following decades, an increase in the composition of new musical works led to the desire for more consistency and precision in performance which, in turn, resulted in the evolution of more sophisticated forms of musical notation. By the twelfth century, a four-line staff had been introduced; neumes were arranged on the lines, and spaces enabled a more accurate representation of pitch. While directions as to speed, dynamics or vocal quality were often included, this form still lacked any kind of rhythmic marking. This is illustrated in a fragment from an antiphonal from the thirteenth century (above middle).

The thirteenth century saw the rise of the five-line staff and the introduction of elements of notation that can be seen in modern music. Notations that provided specific guidance as to key, tempo and dynamics were added over time. This made it possible for singers to learn a melody from the music, rather than by rote, and for its performance to be standardised. One of the Library’s most significant fragments, from the late fourteenth century, illustrates the five-line staff (above right). It is thought to be part of a dismembered choir book that belonged to Henry VI’s Chapel Royal at Windsor Castle.

The term ‘fragment’ conjures up an image of something insignificant or ephemeral. Yet, as is the case with these fascinating remnants of medieval musical notation, they have great scholarly interest—indeed, they are often the only pieces of evidence to have survived that can allow a glimpse of a long-forgotten time.

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