Tuesday, 26 April 2016


The "missing leaf" - University of Cambridge Archives
Formerly elusive music from the Middle Ages has recently experienced a “rebirth” at England’s University of Cambridge. The three-piece early music ensemble Sequentia, alongside the University’s Senior Lecturer of Music Dr. Sam Barrett performed before a group of lucky patrons and music fans Saturday at Pembroke College Chapel a selection of songs set to the poetic verses of the Roman philosopher Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius (Boethius, c. 480–524 AD)’s Consolation of Philosophy.

The concert is a result of 20 years of extensive research headed by Barrett to uncover the complex melodies and techniques employed by classical musicians over a millennium ago, who relied on “aural traditions” of music and an ancient notation system known as “neumes” (symbols representing notation, used in the middle ages)[1] and is notable because the music presented to the public had been previously thought un-interpretable due to the generational tradition of aural coachings on how to correctly structure the melodies for such early music died out over time.

Roman Philosopher Boethius
It would not be until late in the 20th century that a chance discovery by historian Margaret Gibson, who stumbled upon a “single leaf” of a Boethius manuscript contained within the collected archives of a library at Frankfurt in 1982, that researchers discovered the excerpt to have been the missing piece of a puzzle of ancient Latin texts known as “The Cambridge Songs” – an anthology dating from the first half of the 11th century AD – that had been rendered incomplete following an unfortunate “accidental theft” by a Germanic scholar who had torn out a single leaf  from the manuscript in the mid 19th century.

Barrett, one of the chief researchers who worked on securing for the University the lost relic, has, alongside various experts in the field of early music, spent the last two decades drawing on important notations marked on the formerly elusive leaf alongside extensive study of known traditions of early music and has ‘reconstructed’ for the modern-day melophile what is believed to be the closest interpretation of this hitherto most ambiguous music of the middle ages.

Listen below to two excerpts from Saturday (April 23rd’s) historic performance:

Carmina qui quondam - Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy I:1               Heu quam praecipiti - Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy I:2                  

Learn more about this discovery:

  • Roman Philosopher Boethius: Life and Works (Wikipedia)
  • The Consolation of Philosophy as it relates to this performance: (Smithsonian)


[1]Today, neumatic notation is employed solely for Gregorian plainchant for the liturgical purposes of the Roman Catholic Church.


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