Most of the time, if I’m writing a blog post centered around a certain video, I explain the story of the video first, laying out all the necessary exposition so you as a reader will go into the video properly informed. Then I’ll share the video, share a few parting thoughts, and wrap things up.
I’m not going to do that today, though. Today, I’d like you to watch this video first and allow me to explain its significance afterward:
In all likelihood, that’s the first time you’ve heard this song. And there’s good reason for that. Until it was performed on April 23, it hadn’t been heard in a thousand years.
It has taken two decades of masterful puzzle solving, diligent research, and careful extrapolation to allow Sam Barrett of Cambridge University to reconstruct these melodies.
The task of performing such ancient works today is not as simple as reading and playing the music in front of you. 1,000 years ago, music was written in a way that recorded melodic outlines, but not ‘notes’ as today’s musicians would recognise them; relying on aural traditions and the memory of musicians to keep them alive. Because these aural traditions died out in the 12th century, it has often been thought impossible to reconstruct ‘lost’ music from this era – precisely because the pitches are unknown.
Akin to decrypting an encoded poem, Barnett had to identify what are known as neumes (symbols representing a form of musical notation employed during the Middle Ages, specifically the 11th century), and then puzzle out how to translate those neumes into actual notes for musicians to perform.
The discovery of a missing manuscript leaf proved to be the key to unlocking what are now known as the Cambridge Songs:
“After rediscovering the leaf from the Cambridge Songs, what remained was the final leap into sound,” he said. “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.”
This remarkable accomplishment marks the latest in a series of transformations the work has gone through since its creation in the sixth century as a poetic treatise on philosophy by Boethius.
His work was translated, then set to music, and then lost to the ages before being reconstructed and reimagined by Barnett and the three-piece group known as Sequentia, who perform a snippet of it in the video.
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.
This is the sort of tenacity, creativity, and resolve I have come to expect from puzzle-minded people over the years, and it’s one more example of how seemingly nothing is beyond the reach of people willing to put in the time and effort to discover (and rediscover) what was once believed lost.
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