Lectures & Conferences

3rd Annual Lawrence J. Schoenberg Symposium on Manuscript Studies in the Digital Age

Cantus scriptus:

Technologies of Medieval Song

November 19-20, 2010


(in program order)


Elizabeth Mellon, University of Pennsylvania

The Picture of Sound: Reading the diagrams of Boethius’s De institutione musica

Boethius’s De institutione musica, a late antique treatise that became part of the medieval music theory canon, contains dozens of diagrams demonstrating the particulars of Greek musical thought.  These diagrams, whose realizations in manuscripts ranged from spare to extravagant, may present a unique window into medieval conceptualizations of sound at its most basic, independent of notation.  This paper examines the basic visual vocabulary of Boethian diagrams and then, using specific manuscripts as case studies, goes on to explore the potentially diverse purposes of such schemata, including uses as tools of inquiry, as means of representation, and as objects of contemplation.


Emily Zazulia, University of Pennsylvania

Seen but not Heard:  Graphical Identities in the Notation of Late Medieval Music

Considerations of early musical notation often consider what information is not inscribed—for example, dynamics, expression markers, performing forces, and sometimes even precise rhythm. Scholarship on notation has (understandably) long focused on interpreting obscure symbols, wringing them of any information that might inform the recreation of musical practices lost to time. Recently, productive work has turned to memorial practices to better understand the unwritten side of early notation. In this presentation I take an opposite tack, considering more broadly the kinds of information that music writing might inscribe, but are not necessarily heard.

Intuition suggests that a change in sound will necessarily be reflected by a clear change in notational appearance; however, composers in the later middle ages had various ways of changing sound even while maintaining graphical parity, especially of cited material. For example, when Du Fay builds a mass around the tenor of his own chanson Se la face ay pale, he maintains its original notational appearance over the course of the mass, even as he subjects it to various musical manipulations. One might further ask what good, in the realm of music, is that which is not heard? But those pieces for which notation is more than a prescriptive record of potential sound urges us to reconsider our understanding of what late medieval notation is.  While it may not reveal much about how a piece was performed, the late medieval concern for the visual appearance of musical notation has implications for a piece’s conception, composition, and reception.


Anne Stone, City University of New York

Music Notation, Metaphor, and the Reification of Late-Medieval Song

A new kind of songbook appeared in the fourteenth century in which lyric poetry was supplied with elaborate polyphonic musical notation. Compared with the haphazard and rudimentary melodies supplementing the poetry in a handful of troubadour manuscripts, and the more consistent notation found in thirteenth-century manuscripts of old French poetry, still very much subordinated to the text, music notation visually dominated the pages of fourteenth-century songbooks, demanding to be integrated fully into the reader’s experience of the lyric poem. This privileging of music writing relied on two rapidly developing technologies: that of the precise notation of musical rhythm, codified in fits and starts in the first decades of the fourteenth century in a series of treatises collectively and imprecisely referred to as "Ars nova"; and increasingly sophisticated rules of polyphony. These burgeoning technologies gave rise to a new discourse about music, recorded amply in manuscripts of music theory, with an extensive vocabulary related to the production of polyphonic song: perfection and imperfection, prolatio, color and talea, figura, mensura, and so forth. As a result music-as-written took a much more prominent place in the cultural imagination of practitioners of the lyric arts, a prominence revealed not only in such famous images as Machaut composing a balade complete with detailed musical notation, but also, I suggest, in the very vocabulary of lyric composition itself.  The new notated songs comfortably inhabited the pages of the newly-designed codices not only visually but thematically as well, as lyric texts began to refer self-reflexively to mensura, perfection, and figures, so that they became commentaries not only on the beloved, but on the conditions of their own codicological existence.  The possibility arose, arguably for the first time in the history of music, of the development of richer metaphors in which songs could become (among other possible interpretations) a kind of extended meditation upon the discourse of composition. After examining this process in selected examples, I turn to pose some larger questions. When and how did songs cease to be regarded exclusively as products of a performative action ("cantare super librum" to slightly misquote a much later source) and become also a thing, a res facta? How did this change correlate with a growing attention to authorship? And what kind of evidence can we possibly adduce to document this change other than the beginnings of the use of the word "composer"--which occurred extremely late?


Jane Alden, Wesleyan University

Quill and Pixel: Chansonniers and their Modern Readers

In 2007 the distinguished Spanish publisher Vicent García Editores, S.A. issued a limited number of facsimile copies of the famous fifteenth-century songbook, the Chansonnier Cordiforme. This publication replicates the size, unique shape, and even velvet cover of the original manuscript, now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Rather the way that the cultivation of small, elaborately-decorated chansonniers in the 1460s and '70s marked a new development in the history of the book, the growing interest today in new ways of presenting these historical texts draws attention to further changes in our reading practices. Why is it that even as high quality digital images of such manuscripts become available on the Web, the trade in deluxe facsimiles continues to thrive? Who are the readers of such books and what do they want from them?

This paper explores the various forms of engagement sought by modern readers of fifteenth-century chansonniers. One of the defining features of these diminutive books is that they were intended for individual perusal. Chansonniers do not so much reflect as embody the art of love; they contain both the object and subject of their owners' desire, creating an imaginary space of love in material form. Personal ownership allowed readers to fictionalize themselves as author of, participant in, and audience for the courtly encounters recorded in their books. Readers accordingly indicated their ownership in the form of arms, devises, and other identifying markings. Like our fifteenth-century counterparts, we share an interest in the sensual pleasure of touching and possessing valued artifacts. This is the context in which modern-day replica practices, such as artificially aging paper and applying gold leaf, have gained sway. We know the result is a counterfeit and yet libraries and individuals pay dearly for such books.

The appeal of facsimiles is clear, but prohibitive costs and limited availability ensure that even when reproduced in print, these items remain rare. Digital images, on the other hand, make it possible for chansonniers to reach beyond the hands of wealthy individuals and libraries. They also offer a level of detail unavailable even with the original. What then is the academic case for printed facsimiles in the twenty-first century? And how does the new technology change our relationship to the originals?


Lauren Jennings, University of Pennsylvania

Technologies of Un-Notated Transmission: Trecento Song as Poetry in a Late 14th-century Zibaldone

The phrase “technologies of medieval song” immediately brings musical notation—especially rhythmic notation—to mind.  But thinking broadly about the material transmission of song, we find multiple technologies at work, some fundamentally linked to systems musical notation and others independent from it.  Italian ars nova polyphony, for example, circulates in a wide variety of manuscript contexts from the famously luxurious and overtly musical Squarcialupi Codex to informal, inelegant poetic miscellanies devoid of notation and copied not for posterity but for personal use. 

This paper explores alternate, non-notational technologies of transmission in one source of Italian secular polyphony that falls within the latter of these categories.  Scattered throughout a hodgepodge assortment of Italian and French lyric poetry now split between two composite manuscripts (Florence, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale fondo Magliabechiano VII 1040 and fondo Nazionale II.II.61) are several Trecento song texts copied sans notation.  Through an analysis of shared codicological features, I argue that these hitherto unassociated fragments form the last half of a sizeable zibaldone copied by a certain Amelio Bonaguisi, Florentine citizen and podestà of Cerreto Guidi in 1392.  Reconstructed, Amelio’s zibaldone is a valuable source not only for examining technologies of transmission but also for expanding our understanding of the relationship between poetry and music in the Italian ars nova.  Placing song in purely literary environment, this Florentine text-only manuscript suggests a new interpretation of so-called “poesia per musica”—one that recognizes this repertoire’s dual artistic identity.  Not merely unavoidable by-products of vocal music-making, Trecento song texts actively participate in an independent poetic tradition running parallel to their musical lives in notated sources.


Susan Rankin, University of Cambridge

Capturing Sounds: The Notation of Language

When an entirely new kind of musical notation–one which was to lead eventually to modern Western notations–was invented in the late eighth or early ninth century in Carolingian Europe, how was it conceptualized?  And what was this notation intended to record in written form, and to bring about in the performance of chant?

Beginning from one fragmentary source notated circa 900 and only substantially recoverable through digital techniques, I shall consider ninth-century musical notations in terms of what they apparently tried to accomplish (and what they did not try to accomplish).  The most prevalent modern model of musical notation–a written matrix which provides primary instructions for performance–has to be set aside: these early notations are not to be regarded as rudimentary, technically undeveloped, approaches to recording music in writing.  The way in which they record certain elements of sound and not others, as well as the variability of their record, can be much more satisfactorily explained as the outcome of a more obviously contemporary model–an interaction between recall and reading.

An historical context for exploring the mindset of the inventors of musical notation can be developed by examining those ways in which late antique grammarians wrote about sounds, and the ways in which they sought to control the sound of language.  Only within that wider context can a fundamental question which emerges from the results of the notational analyses be pursued: when the inventors of musical notation and later ninth-century scribes wrote neumes, did they imagine they were marking on parchment an aspect of language–how a text sounded in the (correct) performance of chant–or were they writing down a component of sound which was ontologically distinct from the words of a text?  


Julia Craig-McFeely, Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music (DIAMM)

Digital reproductions of manuscripts are now reasonably easy to obtain from a very wide variety of libraries, although persuading suppliers to meet the standards required for digital restoration - or even high-quality reproduction - is surprisingly difficult. As more researchers tackle image-processing to help them read damaged originals the need for suppliers to meet a baseline standard is much greater, so the paper examines a set of basic guidelines for requesting images for research purposes. The paper demonstrates some 'virtual restoration' techniques on a variety of different types of damage, and discusses the ethical boundaries of different methodologies and the ways in which an end user can be misled. Photographic techniques such as ultra-violet, infra-red and multi-spectral imaging as adjuncts to normal colour imaging will also be discussed.

Michael Scott Cuthbert, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Monks, Manuscripts, and Other Peer-to-Peer Song-Sharing Networks of the Middle Ages

One of the hardest parts of working on music as far in the past as fourteenth- and fifteenth-century music is the knowledge that so many of the sources from the period have been lost.  These extreme losses of manuscripts are usually thought to imply similar losses of pieces: the conventional wisdom is that we have only the “tip of the iceberg” of medieval and early Renaissance music.  My recent work has argued the opposite, specifically showing that the majority of ars nova secular music survives, and that future discoveries are more likely to find new copies of familiar songs than new copies of new song.  This paper further supports this new conclusion by using evidence from a surprisingly different research area.  Studies of Peer-to-Peer music sharing networks (such as Limewire and Kazaa) show that even with millions of computer peers (analogous to manuscripts) the total number of songs remains extremely limited.  A Tel-Aviv-based research group found only one unique song for every 4,000 copies of songs floating around the Internet.  Their work also showed that even if 80% of all musical sources were lost we would still have over half the original number of songs.  While not arguing for a complete parallel between modern and medieval transmission practice, the paper concludes by noting other ways that research on song transmission and popularity today can help us understand transmission patterns and geographical distribution of song in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance.

Return to 3rd Annual Schoenberg Symposium overview.