Background


The earliest manuscripts of this kind in Europe date from the ninth century, when manuscripts of sung texts began to appear with a form of musical notation, known as neumes. There are many thousands of such manuscripts still in existence from the medieval period, and they are among the great monuments of European culture.


Figure 1. Manuscript Douce 222 (excerpt), Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

There are many distinct families of neume notation, and various species within those families resulting from local traditions and from the experimental process of inventing musical notation. Figure 2 shows just a few of the forms in which one neumatic symbol, the clivis, appears.


Figure 2. Twelve examples of the clivis symbol written in different notational species.

Byzantine neume notations pose special problems not evidenced in Western notations (although they share many basic conceptual elements and some common chant texts). Paleo-Byzantine notations, for example, involve complex signs that denote groups of tones or entire melismas (see Figure 3).


Figure 3. Greek text superscribed with signs of the Chartres type of Paleo-Byzantine notation.

Tens of thousands of codices survive from the Middle Ages, comprising perhaps millions of individual documents with neume notation. No one yet knows how many exist. We estimate that there are at least ten thousand manuscript pages containing Western neume-notation in the Oxford collections alone. Today, only a small fraction of the surviving neumed documents have been adequately catalogued or studied in detail by scholars.

These early neumed manuscripts are of enormous importance to scholars and musicians, even when the music they contain cannot be directly sung. In some cases the manuscripts record music that is not otherwise known -- music that was not written down in later, more lucid notation, and of which the early documents are the sole record. Even when later sources do preserve old melodies, the early sources are still valuable: they record vocalisation details that cannot be depicted in later notation. Comparing them with each other and with later sources reveals the transmission of repertories and how melodies evolved.


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