Discovering lost chant

This weekend I’ve been at Tudor Partbooks’s first Reconstruction workshop, at the Faculty of Music in Oxford University (so for me, it felt as if I was coming home!). One of the project’s aims is to recreate the lost tenor book from the Baldwin partbooks, so that the pieces that are currently incomplete can be performed again. Lots of the pieces that Baldwin copied don’t survive anywhere else, which means that the tenor parts have to be composed by modern editors. To composition-phobes like me this seems like a terrifying prospect, and I was fully prepared to spend most of the weekend feeling utterly lost, but I really enjoyed myself – all those harmony and counterpoint tutorials I endured as a first-year undergraduate seem to have paid off…

One of the pieces we looked at was John Redford’s Sint lumbi vestri. Redford was an organist who worked at St Paul’s Cathedral and who died in 1547 (He also seems to have worked at St Cross, Winchester, which I visited, aged twelve, in preparation for my confirmation – another blast-from-the-past). Sint lumbi vestri is in six parts, and the missing tenor has a line of plainchant around which the other parts weave an elaborate web of counterpoint. Because the tenor has plainchant in long notes all the way through, and we know how the plainchant should go, you’d have thought it would be easy to reconstruct – but appearances can be deceptive!

A bit of background before I explain. In England during the reign of Henry VIII, most churches used the plainchant melodies and liturgical texts dictated by the Use of Sarum (another name for Salisbury). A few others used different Uses – there was a Use of York, and a Use of Hereford, for example, and monasteries often had their own Uses which could vary a lot from the others. There had at one time been a Use of St Paul’s, and it had been believed (as John Milsom told us on Sunday) that it had died out in favour of the Use of Sarum long before Redford’s time, leaving no surviving record of its repertoire of plainchant. But when you try to fit the Use of Sarum plainchant for the Sint lumbi vestri text into the gaps in Redford’s composition, you come across problems pretty quickly – and John Milsom thinks that this is evidence that Redford was in fact using the Use of St Paul’s melody that we thought had long been abandoned.

Using a mixture of the Sarum, York and Hereford plainchant melodies, we reconstructed the lost tenor as far as we could, and then filled in the gaps with the best possible notes for the job. We were left with a tenor melody that had elements of all three surviving Uses, but some unique features, and it’s just possible that we’ve managed to reconstruct the only surviving melody from the ancient Use of St Paul’s. It’s a proper piece of musical archaeology. Now, why couldn’t first-year Techniques have been as exciting as this?

I can’t wait now for the second Recon workshop, which is provisionally booked for 13th November 2015 at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. For more information, have a look at http://www.tudorpartbooks.ac.uk/newsevents/.

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