Lost Medieval Music Performed for First Time in 1000 Years

Detail from the Cambridge Songs manuscript leaf that was stolen from and then recovered by Cambridge University Library.

The language of music is universal, but can be lost over time.

After a 20-year reconstruction effort, a researcher and a performer of medieval music have brought “lost” songs from the Middle Ages back to life.

The “Songs of Consolation” were recently performed at the University of Cambridgein the United Kingdom. Reconstructed from “neumes” (medieval symbols used to represent musical notation), the tunes accompanied poems from Roman philosopher Boethius’ magnum opus, “The Consolation of Philosophy.” [4 Unusual Ways Music Can Tune Up the Brain]

Two decades may seem like extensive research for a concert, but performing ancient works does not simply mean reading and playing sheet music.

A millennium ago, music was written in melodic outlines and not the modern “notes” that musicians rely on today. Music in medieval times was then shared through aural traditions and musicians’ memories. Since these traditions died out hundreds of years ago, it is nearly impossible to decipher music from this era, because the pitches are unknown, experts have said.

Sam Barrett, a senior lecturer in music at the University of Cambridge, spent the past 20 years painstakingly identifying the musical techniques and melodies for “Songs of Consolation.” He then worked with Benjamin Bagby, a member of Sequentia, a group of performers who have built a working memory of medieval song. Together, the two tested theories of the music with practical accompaniment.

“Ben tries out various possibilities, and I react to them — and vice versa,” Barrett said in a statement. “When I see him working through the options that an 11th-century person had, it’s genuinely sensational; at times you just think, ‘that’s it!’ He brings the human side to the intellectual puzzle I was trying to solve during years of continual frustration.”

The researchers faced one major hurdle in their reconstruction project: a missing page from an 11th-century manuscript called “Cambridge Songs,” the final part of an anthology of Latin text. The lost page included vital notations used to understand the musical principles of the era.

Barrett said the notations allowed him and Bagby to “achieve a critical mass” that may have been impossible without that puzzle piece.

“There have been times while I’ve been working on this that I have thought I’m in the 11th century, when the music has been so close it was almost touchable,” Barrett said.

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