Listen to the ancient song that has been recreated for the first time in the last thousand years

ancient-song-boethius-reconstruction_1Initial depicting Boethius teaching his students, from Italy, circa 1385 AD. Credit: Glasgow University library

If there is a God, whence proceed so many evils? If there is no God, whence cometh any good?” – one of the oft-quoted Roman philosophers who was born four years after the Western Roman Empire ‘technically’ ceased to exist, Boethius or Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius (480 AD – 525 AD) held many offices, including that of a senator, consul, and magister officious. And back in April of this year, one of his lingering legacies in the form of an ancient song known as the ‘Songs of Consolation’ was recreated and performed for the first time in the last thousand years. The musical piece pertains to the poetic portions of Boethius’ magnum opus The Consolation of Philosophy, considered as one of the most important and widely-read philosophical works of the Middle Ages.

In fact, from the historical perspective, the work’s eminence stemmed from its various translations by renowned personalities like King Alfred the Great, Chaucer and even Elizabeth I. And since we brought up the scope of history, the medieval period also witnessed a plethora of Latin songs being composed in neumes, in the period between circa 9th century to 13th century. Many of these musical pieces were not only derived from the works of late antiquity authors like Boethius, but also from the works of classical ancient authors like Horace and Virgil.

Cambridge University’s Dr. Sam Barrett had to delve into one of these incredible historical journeys to identify and then recreate the ‘Songs of Consolation’. And while the statement may seem straightforward, the process was anything but, especially since the medieval music was written on the basis of melodic outlines, as opposed to the modern-day recognition of what we know as notes. In other words, the thousand-year musical compositions were more dependent on the oral traditions of the contemporary musicians. As Barrett clarified –

Neumes indicate melodic direction and details of vocal delivery without specifying every pitch and this poses a major problem. 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.

In spite of such limitations, Barrett was able to compile and piece together around 80 percent of what can be technically known about the melodies for Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy. And while the project was painstaking, he was fortunately helped by Benjamin Bagby, the co-founder of Sequentia, a three-piece group of experienced performers who have formulated “their own working memory of medieval songs”. With their expertise, the two researchers tried versions that combined both the theoretical and practical approaches (based on periodic instruments), and step-by-step resurrected a musical side to the poems of The Consolation of Philosophy.

Now it should be noted that historians are still not sure if Boethius himself intended his poems to be sung. However, the Roman philosopher is known to have documented ideas about musical styles in his other notable works, including De musica. Furthermore, as we mentioned before, it was a common medieval practice (before the 12th century) for musicians to compose melodic variants as means to not only ritualize but also memorize the influential Latin texts from the ancient times.

And lastly, it was a bit of fortuitous luck that finally allowed the researchers to put together the last piece of the proverbial puzzle. This was in the form of a missing leaf that was originally removed from Cambridge University Library by a German scholar in the 1840s. But it was rediscovered by Liverpool University academic Margaret Gibson in 1982, during a chance visit to a local Frankfurt library. As Barrett concluded –

Without this extraordinary piece of luck, it would have been much, much harder to reconstruct the songs. The notations on this single leaf allow us to achieve a critical mass that may not have been possible without it. 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. And it’s those moments that make the last 20 years of work so worthwhile.

Source: Cambridge University

Featured Image Credit: Glasgow University