In 2016, after 20 years of research, Cambridge University medieval music specialist Sam Barrett used the rediscovered leaf of an 11th-century manuscript to reconstruct music as it would have been heard a thousand years ago.
Melodies in those days were not recorded as precise pitches but relied on the memory of musicians and on aural traditions that died out in the 12th century. “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 said. The missing leaf, appropriated by a Germanic scholar in 1840, contained vital neumes, or musical symbols, that allowed him and his colleagues to finish their reconstruction of Boethius’ “Songs of Consolation” as it was performed in the Middle Ages.
“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,” Barrett said. “And it’s those moments that make the last 20 years of work so worthwhile.”