03.02.27, Bell, Music in Medieval Manuscripts

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Kerry R. McCarthy

The Medieval Review baj9928.0302.027


Bell, Nicolas. Music in Medieval Manuscripts. Toronto: University of Toronto Press and The British Library, 2001. Pp. 64. ISBN: 0-8020-8432-x.

Reviewed by:
Kerry R. McCarthy

The title of this beautifully produced little book is somewhat misleading: a more accurate name might be Music in Medieval Manuscripts from the British Library. Nicolas Bell is a curator of music manuscripts there, and his book is a whirlwind tour in pictures through early music history, notation, and performance, with examples taken exclusively from the Library's archives. Such a book, based on a lesser collection, could end up as a case of the proverbial tail wagging the dog; here it works out very well. The sources at hand include the Old Hall manuscript (43), the Beauvais manuscript containing the Play of Daniel (36), one of the finest surviving Beneventan Exultet rolls (20; 48-49), and the source of the famous Sumer is icumen in (27), as well as a splendid selection of chant manuscripts and illuminations showing early instruments. The result is an appealing introductory account of medieval music in images, and what may be the best tour one can take of the Library's early music collections without buying a ticket to London.

Bell divides his material into four chapters: "Understanding Music" (an introduction to early music theory), "Writing Music" (outlining the rise and development of chant notation), "New Forms of Music" (on polyphonic notation and later medieval elaborations), and "Singing and Playing Music" (with manuscript illuminations showing performers, at various levels of dignity and apparent expertise, in the act of music-making). He deals mostly with Western European music, though there is also a brief excursus into Eastern Orthodox liturgical practice. As a transition into the latter and perhaps less familiar territory, he has chosen another unusual source from the British Library: a page from a tenth-century Rhineland manuscript (28) featuring a Latin translation (complete with neumes) of the Cheroubikon or "Cherubic Hymn," one of the most important Greek Orthodox chants. This example shows clearly, as Bell points out, that cross-fertilization between the Christian East and West was by no means foreign to the Middle Ages.

The bulk of the volume is taken up by images of the manuscripts themselves. There are over fifty illustrations, handsomely printed and all in full color, showing a range of detail that is lost in microfilm or standard black-and-white facsimile. In his chapter on medieval music theory, for example, Bell reproduces an excerpt from an eleventh-century copy of Musica Enchiriadis (10), in which the scribe shows the arrangement of tones and semitones in the musical scale, along with a notated example of two-part polyphony. Here color is used to illustrate the continuum of pitch, shading gradually down from a fiery orange-red through a warm brown to an almost black ink as the notes descend. The result, as striking as it is unexpected, reflects the spirit of an era that was fascinated by the myriad possibilities of representing sound on the written page.

Although Music in Medieval Manuscripts is devoted primarily to showing facsimiles of early musical sources, Bell's accompanying text is also of high quality. An all-too-familiar affliction is the gift or "coffee-table" book that reproduces medieval manuscripts for their visual beauty but gets any number of things wrong in the commentary. Bell (a recent Cambridge Ph.D. whose dissertation concerned the notation of the Las Huelgas Codex) has a talent for explaining complex musical matters in straightforward, accessible language. The clarity of the text, and its careful integration with the facsimiles, would make Music in Medieval Manuscripts an ideal gift for all who enjoy hearing or performing this repertoire -- from precocious teens to long-time early music enthusiasts. The book's only real shortcoming, its small octavo format (the reader is left wishing for larger facsimiles!), also makes it an affordable and enjoyable addition to any student's library.

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Kerry R. McCarthy