Photographs of Music

The extract of music today comes from Lambeth Palace MS 457 and consists of four poems with music. As well as studying verse and notation, it will also allow us to look at the use and reuse of parchment and how, with modern technology, we can reconstruct missing or damaged pages in manuscripts. The text is a is a rebound set of three manuscripts dating from the 15th century and earlier and is written on paper and parchment. Aside from the two folios we shall look at the text is non-musical and consists of treatises, liturgical writings, and sermons, including the writings of Jerome and Seneca. Of the two pages containing music notation only one is visible to the naked eye. The other has been scraped away and a commentary on the seven deadly sins has been written over the top (palimpsest). This was a common occurrence in medieval manuscripts, whereby scribes and writers could reuse or correct previous writing by scraping the existing text away from the velum with a small knife and leaving a clear surface to write upon again.

The music itself is in a 13th century non-mensural script, this being literally non-measured notes, where the placement and form of the note indicate pitch but not timing or rhythm. This is not to say of course that there is no way to tell what the rhythm is meant to be. The interpretation relies on our understanding of cultural norms and rhythmic modes, as well as textual analysis looking at the stresses in the syllables and the rhythmic structure of the text. Examples of the rhythmic modes, like harmonic modes but governing rhythm rather than pitch, can be found in France around the 12th century.[i] These examples are attributed to Léonin (1150s-1201) who was a member of the Notre Dame school of Polyphony, which existed from 1160-1250. During this time, he established six underlying pulses or rhythmic modes to guide people in interpreting note values in a given piece of music. How far outside of the Notre Dame school in Paris this travelled is a matter of some contention as is the possibility of other schools using similar principles. That they likely existed can be surmised by non-mensural music that does not conform to his patterns and that was written some distance from Paris. It should be said however that the proliferation of this type of notation does not necessarily equate to multiple schools considering what we know of the movement of people and rapid diffusion of ideas during this period. This was superseded in the 13th as mensural music systems were developed and codified, the most well-known example was by Franco of Cologne who wrote Ars Cantus Mensurabilis in 1250-1280.

It is a common feature however that music based on pre-existing compositions was still written in non-mensural notation even after the 13th century. This is commonly seen for example in transcriptions of troubadour songs. This piece in MS 457 can be clearly defined as non-mensural by the lack of ligatures in the setting and by the positioning of breves and longs above one another where both must have the same value (for more information about this type of notation see A plaine and easie introduction to practicall musicke. Thomas Morley) Approaching this piece then one can see the limits of our understanding of this type of music. When one approaches with the wrong rhythmical system the carefully prepared dissonances and resolutions of voice leading, something that was very important in this form of music, are lost. This can result in further attempts to ‘correct’ errors in the music, which can then lead to very different interpretations. Examples of the approaches range from syllabic, each syllable having equal value with melasmas being quickened, to entirely unmeasured, the choice being up to the performer. One of the ways musicologists have attempted to reconstruct a more historically accurate basis is to look at instances where both mensural and non-mensural notation is used to depict the same tune.


Figure 1Bnf MS fr. 844 f78v 13century

In this example there is a dance (a vielle) beginning “Tant es gay es avinentz” written in mensural notation. On the right on the third stave down is a troubadour song by Blacasset vegining “Ben volgra que.m vengues mer[c]es” written in non-mensural notation. Both however use the same melody. This raises a whole host of interesting questions, about how one approaches this type of music and why the use of non-mensural notation persisted when more ‘accurate’ notation was available. It has been suggested by some musicologists that the very ambiguity of the notation was the point. Complaints by Elias Salomon in the 1270s, amongst others about church singers retarding, accelerating, anticipating, and improperly phrasing the notes suggest that the practice of treating the written music as a guide rather than prescriptive meant that depicting the exact rhythm was not only not useful but not required. The next question is that if this was the case why then also transcribe this work in mensural notation? The answer, I believe, has to do more with form than historical precedent. The first piece on the page is meant to be a dance. Without a regular rhythm this becomes much more difficult. Whereas for a song, particularly if there is a cultural expectation and performance practice of rhythmic expression, writing something out in strict metric rhythm would be unnecessary.


Returning to the manuscript, having looked at why the style of notation was used and discussed what remains and what does not, we can next consider the application of spectroscopy and the use of non-visible light spectrums when studying medieval or historical manuscripts. This has been revolutionary in what it has allowed us to see. Below are three examples the middle one showing the image as it would appear to the naked eye. The one on the right being a composite of under UV light showing a previously unseen trace of a border. The one on the left demonstrates the effect on pigments of this sort of technology.


In the above images of MS1370 you can clearly see how by viewing the page under different sources of light the image of an erased border can be seen. This is due to the different reactions of ink to different wavelengths of light. Pigments, simplistically, get their colour from the reflection of a certain, or combination of certain, wavelengths of light. The simplest and most common example in manuscripts is the use of carbon, in various forms, in black ink. This means that when looked at under UV or IR light the carbon particles absorb the wavelengths far more than the surrounding parchment. This can reveal text or line drawings that are otherwise obscured either because they have been erased or because they have been covered up. For example, when looking at illuminated pages in a manuscript under IR light the pigments used do not, by and large, absorb the light, thus allowing us to see the black lines beneath where the artist sketched out the design. This can reveal previous ideas or alternative arrangements of the image. Similarly, when the text is viewed under UV light the different pigments reflect differing amounts of UV light. With the right camera and equipment this can be rendered visible and, as you can see, reveal information about the pigments used and how they were applied.


Turning to MS 457, whilst the music on f 192v has been erased it can viewed under UV light showing a continuation of the music underneath the writing. This is done by shining a hand-held UV lamp at the page whilst taking images with the digital camera; a low-tech approach but suitable for our purposes.


With a slightly fuller picture of the work we can see that the music is divided into 5 distinct songs: The first is quite distinct in its rhythmic approach, which can be interpreted from the syllabification of the text and the placement of ligatures. The poem used is metric with a definite rhyme scheme. It is also probably English in origin, owing to the proliferation of thirds and the fact that similar tune has not been found in other continental sources. The work is harmonically interesting with prepared dissonances throughout resolving and reoccurring as the piece progresses


For the second piece the underlying tune is an Agnus trope, a copy of which can be found in a 14th century Sarum missal in the Bodleian (MS Don.b.5, f. 398). The rhythm of the piece is a modification of the duplum mode and lacks the thirds and dissonances of the previous piece. However, since the trope is from the Sarum we can assume the piece is English again.


The third piece of music is again based on a metrical rhyming poem leading one to believe it has a binary structure (aa bb or ab ab). Of interest however is the last five notes of the piece where a new third voice is introduced, giving what is probably an early example of English three voice polyphony


The fourth piece is where things become more difficult. The trope used is incomplete having two lines of music over one line of text. With the piece being through composed, that being music composed with a focus on voice leading and the individual melodic line rather than harmonic patterns, it is likely that the text continued on the next page with fragments of the second and third verses of the trope visible under UV light. Fortunately, the trope is recognisable and exists with different music in other sources. However, unlike the proceeding pieces the work is not metrically balanced and lacks an internal rhyme. This melody, as said, is from an Agnus Dei chant which, in this case, is found throughout England, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, leading to clear difficulties in identifying the original piece.


This has hopefully provided a brief introduction into the difficulties in studying early manuscripts and the advantages that modern technology can bring to this process.

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One thought on “Photographs of Music

  1. I’ve been looking into Lambeth Palace MS 457 and was delighted to find this article, referencing my work on As far as I am aware, the three unique pieces in the ms have never been recorded. Could you confirm this? I am currently planning an analysis of the music and a recording of the three unique pieces for an Early Music Muse article, to go live later this year.

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