Listen to a Song That Hasn't Been Heard For a Thousand Years

By George Dvorsky on at

An ancient song repertory lost since the 11th century has been reconstructed by researchers from the University of Cambridge.

It’s called “Songs of Consolation,” and it was a medieval musical retelling of Roman philosopher Boethius’s magnum opus, The Consolation of Philosophy. Back then it was common practice to take classic works, such as those written by Horace and Virgil, and assign a melody to the texts. This was done to learn and ritualize the texts, which often consisted of love songs and laments.

You can listen to a short excerpt of the recovered work in the above video. The entire thing is well over an hour. The performance is quite dreamy and whimsical, almost like something by the Moody Blues. The Latin lyrics place the work firmly in the Middle Ages, evoking images of monks chanting in their medieval cathedrals.

Reconstructing “Consolation” wasn’t easy, and it took many years of hard work. It was put together from neumes—symbols that represented musical notation back in the Middle Ages, and a precursor to modern notation. The reconstruction was made possible owing to the re-discovery of an 11th century manuscript that was stolen from Cambridge University and presumed lost for nearly a century and a half.

Musicologist Sam Barrett from Cambridge University has spent the last two decades identifying the techniques used to set these verse forms. The recovery of the missing leaf, which had sat idle in a German library since the 1840s, enabled Barrett to go about an actual reconstruction.

“After rediscovering the leaf from the Cambridge Songs, what remained was the final leap into sound,” said Barrett in a Cambridge release. “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.”

Working with the recovered leaf, Barrett managed to piece together about 80 to 90 per cent of the melody. He then recruited Sequentia—a three-piece ensemble that specializes in medieval music—so that he could hear what the songs actually sounded like, and to refine his initial reconstructive work.

“Ben [Bagby from Sequentia] tries out various possibilities and I react to them—and vice versa,” said Barrett. “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.”

This coming Saturday, April 23, Sequentia will be performing “Songs of Consolation” at Pembroke College Chapel at Cambridge University, from 8pm-9:30pm. It’ll be the first live performance of the piece in nearly a thousand years.

[University of Cambridge]