1,000-Year-Old ‘Lost’ Song Brought Back to Life

Ancient instruments.

A song that hasn’t been heard for 1,000 years can now be heard once again. (Image: Screenshot via YouTube)

A song that hasn’t been heard for 1,000 years can now be heard once again. The 11th-century song was reconstructed by researchers from the University of Cambridge.

Songs of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, which it is known as, is a retelling of Roman philosopher Boethius’s magnum opus, the Consolation of Philosophy, which was one of the most widely-read and important works of the Middle Ages.

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It was written during Boethius’ 6th-century imprisonment — before his execution for treason. It was seen to be so important that many major figures had translated it, including King Alfred the Great, Chaucer, and Elizabeth I.

Reconstructing the Songs of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy:

Hundreds of Latin songs were recorded in neumes (symbols that represented musical notation) from the 9th through to the 13th century. It was common practice to take classic works like Horace and Virgil, or late antique authors such as Boethius, and assign a melody to the texts. It is believed that this was done to learn and ritualize the texts, which most often consisted of love songs and laments.

For the researchers, this was not an easy task, because 1,000 years ago, music was written in a way that recorded the melodic outlines, not “notes” as today’s musicians would recognize them, but they relied on oral traditions and the memory of musicians to keep them alive.

Because these aural traditions had died out in the 12th century, it was thought to be impossible to reconstruct the “lost” music from this era, as the pitches are unknown. The entire song is well over an hour, but the video is just a short excerpt of the recovered work. The performance is quite dreamy and whimsical, with the Latin lyrics placing the work firmly in the Middle Ages, which evokes images of monks chanting in medieval cathedrals.

Restoring Lost Songs from Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy (1) – Carmina qui quondam, Sequentia:

After the rediscovery of an 11th-century manuscript, Sam Barrett, a musicologist from Cambridge University, was able to reconstruct the melodies. Dr. Barrett said in a statement:

“This particular leaf — ‘accidentally’ removed from Cambridge University Library by a German scholar in the 1840s — is a crucial piece of the jigsaw as far as recovering the songs is concerned.”

Traces of lost song repertoires survive, but not the aural memory

Dr. Barrett has spent the last two decades identifying the techniques used to set these verse forms. With the recovery of the missing leaf, he was able to do the actual reconstruction, saying:

“After rediscovering the leaf from the Cambridge Songs, what remained was the final leap into sound. Neumes indicate melodic direction and details of vocal delivery without specifying every pitch and this poses a major problem.

Barrett has managed to put together about 80 to 90 percent of the song's melody.
Barrett has managed to put together about 80 to 90 percent of the melody. (Image: Screenshot via YouTube)

“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.”

Barrett has managed to put together about 80 to 90 percent of the melody. He then enlisted Sequentia — a three-piece ensemble that specializes in medieval music — to help him understand what the songs actually sounded like, and to refine his initial reconstructive work.

Barrett said: “Ben Bagby from Sequentia tries out various possibilities and I react to them — and vice versa. When I see him working through the options that an 11th-century person had, it’s genuinely sensational; at times, you just think ‘that’s it!’ He brings the human side to the intellectual puzzle I was trying to solve during years of continual frustration.

“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.”

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