Musicologie Médiévale

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enChanting Musical Artifacts in Unlikely Places: Rare Resources in MIT’s Lewis Music Library

There are times when it’s necessary to judge a book by its cover, or a single page, because that’s all that remains. Michael Scott Cuthbert and Nancy Schrock reveal some treasures from MIT’s early music collection which, while often incomplete or damaged, sing volumes about their origins and use.

Cuthbert demonstrates that when it comes to medieval and renaissance music manuscripts, there’s really no substitute for the real thing. His discussion concerns several recent additions to MIT’s Lewis Music Library. Online perusal alone cannot reveal which of his manuscripts was designed to be read by a large group of singers in a cathedral, and which served as a valued part of a priest’s collection for personal study. Holding the two artifacts up, Cuthbert makes it clear: He first displays a giant, two-sided leaf, and then an aged volume containing the much smaller page.

To examine these specimens, says Shrock, she must use special tools of the trade: a fiber optic light sheet for studying paper; microscopes, digital cameras. In examining and preserving music manuscripts and other rare MIT books, Schrock needs to know the process by which the object came into being. She shows the large leaf from the choir book: it’s parchment, made from the lined skins of young animals, with the hair scraped off, shaved and rubbed with pumice to achieve a smooth surface perfect for text and binding. Schrock shows a 15th century book of hours, an illuminated manuscript that was rebound by a collector in the 18th century. While she admires the redo (red morocco tooled in gold), the object “no longer reflects the way this manuscript was originally made, and we’ve lost knowledge about it.” Flaws are more informative than beauty.

Says Cuthbert, “For many of us, modern musicology is less about spending time in dusty archives and more about recreating what we see in CSI.” New technology may hold the key to answering longstanding mysteries, such as the abrupt abandonment or evolution of certain kinds of religious music. Some manuscripts may hide their beginnings, or travel widely: “Maybe the choir book left the cathedral in a sack in the middle of the night,” he says. With computer software, researchers can now compare music manuscripts that originated in widely separated regions of the world. New machines can peer into manuscripts where the music has been scraped off to make room for other information (such as land ownership records, or an illustrated bestiary), to see what originally existed; and advances in digital imaging can discern the flow of notes on a page where they had once been obliterated or obscured. DNA tracing, he hopes, will ultimately permit musicologists to determine the provenance of animals used in parchment down to the cathedral green where they grazed.
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