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Singing Boethius's Lost Songs: New Videos Bring Neumes to Life

last modified Jul 17, 2020 10:18 AM

The prospect of recovering the music of lost songs of the distant past is tantalising, even more so when traces survive in unfamiliar notations that cannot be fully reconstructed. This is the case for much of the early medieval Latin song repertory, which has long been considered lost because the notational signs employed record only melodic outlines, relying on oral traditions that have now died out to supply missing details.  

Research conducted by Dr Sam Barrett, in collaboration with the Medieval Ensemble Sequentia, has enabled the reconstruction of part of this repertoire. In a new series of videos, made in collaboration with the Cambridge Digital Library, Dr Barrett introduces six of these reconstructed songs from Boethius' sixth-century De consolatione philosophiae (On the Consolation of Philosophy), one of the most widely read books of the Middle Ages. Each video allows the viewer to follow the notation (neumes) in the manuscript – the 'Cambridge Songs' Leaf – as the melody for the opening lines of each song notated on the leaf is sung in turn. 

More information about the processes of reconstruction and how to read neumes is provided on the project website.