Researcher reconstructs 1,000 year old ‘lost’ music from ancient manuscript

After more than 20 years of research, songs from the Middle Ages are now being played for the first time in 1000 years.

All of this is thanks to Cambridge researcher Sam Barrett, who has been working painstakingly for years to reconstruct the music of a Latin text from the Cambridge Songs—an 11th century manuscript combining classical texts (as in ancient Roman and Greek authors) with a special kind of musical notation known as neumes.

As is occasionally done today (like the song to help you remember the three kinds of rock in a cringey way), music was a popular way to memorize texts—such as the Latin text, The Consolation of Philosophy by Roman philosopher Boethius, from the Cambridge Songs. Neumes—symbols that represented music in the Middle Ages—were a way of recording how the songs sounded.

Recreating old tunes

Reconstructing this music, then, seems simple—all you should have to do is look at the neumes, right? Sadly, it wasn’t this easy; there were two huge catches that kept the songs from being fully realized.

First, unlike something like guitar tab, neumes did not record notes—they were more musical outlines, and medieval musicians relied entirely on memory and traditions to play music. And once this died out in the 12th century, there was no one left to remember how these songs were supposed to sound.

“Neumes indicate melodic direction and details of vocal delivery without specifying every pitch and this poses a major problem,” said Barrett in a Cambridge statement. “The traces of lost song repertoires survive, but not the aural memory that once supported them. We know the contours of the melodies and many details about how they were sung, but not the precise pitches that made up the tunes.”

The second major problem: The Cambridge Songs manuscript was missing a page.

“This particular leaf – ‘accidentally’ removed from Cambridge University Library by a German scholar in the 1840s – is a crucial piece of the jigsaw as far as recovering the songs is concerned,” said Barrett.

A crucial discovery

142 years after the leaf was stolen, Liverpool University academic Margaret Gibson rediscovered it. She immediately recognized the page as being from The Consolation of Philosophy and its likely importance, and after a bit of work, she managed to track down the manuscript where it came from—the Cambridge Songs.

“Without this extraordinary piece of luck, it would have been much, much harder to reconstruct the songs,” added Barrett. “The notations on this single leaf allow us to achieve a critical mass that may not have been possible without it.

With the now completed manuscript of The Consolation of Philosophy available to study, Barrett made great strides in uncovering the music behind the neumes, eventually piecing together 80-90 percent of what the text contained. For the rest, he turned to Benjamin Bagby of Sequentia, the co-founder of a three-piece musical group that has spent years building up knowledge of and performing medieval songs.

For the past two years, Barrett and Bagby have worked closely together, experimenting with various scholarly theories and real-life musical practicalities until they fleshed out the entire songs of the Latin text.

“Ben tries out various possibilities and I react to them – and vice versa,” said Barrett. “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!’”

Songs from the manuscript were performed for the public for the first time in 1000 years on Saturday, bringing 20 years of hard work and dedication to its final close.

“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,” said Barrett. “And it’s those moments that make the last 20 years of work so worthwhile.”

Here’s some of the music:


Image credit: University of Cambridge