Armchair philology – Musical treasures from the Austrian National Library

Philology—the study of early texts, their meaning and how they have been passed down through the ages—has has traditionally consisted of researchers chasing after books and manuscripts scattered throughout libraries and archives. I use the adverb “traditionally” with some irony since for some time now researchers have done much of their work sitting at a desk (or occasionally in an armchair) pouring over facsimiles, photographic images on 35 millimetre microfilm, and increasingly digital images on a computer’s screen, of original sources. Researchers are spending less time with the original manuscripts. Although it is important that archivists maintain access to the original sources, it is also important that these sources are conserved for future generations. There are many music manuscripts that have been the subject of intense scrutiny over the last century, and between their handling by scholars and sometimes fraught attempts at conservation by their owners, the condition and legibility of these sources has noticeably declined. Though I am inclined to give examples, I won’t because that would give the impression that I am censuring particular individuals, libraries or archives. The reality is that time has simply taken its toll on these books.

The advent of the digital age has not only allowed the librarians of collections of precious manuscripts to breathe a collective sigh of relief, but it has also provided to all users of the world wide web access to their treasures. (Consequently, 35mm microfilm seems to be going the way of the dodo. I weep not.) Almost every day now, I learn of a new collection of digital images of medieval manuscripts, often musical sources, appearing online, freely available to whosoever wishes to direct their browser to them. The benefits are obvious. Not only does digitisation ensure the preservation of precious sources both in terms of limiting wear and tear on the original by providing an exact representation, it also democratises these cultural treasures in a way hitherto impossible. Even a decade ago, it was only the researcher or the serious (and wealthy) book collector that accessed the beautiful facsimiles of medieval manuscripts. (Some of these facsimiles were even/are still beyond the humble budget of researchers!) Now, with an internet connection, anyone can access images of these cultural treasures when they are placed online. Of course, veteran researchers that spent a good part of their annual salary or research budget on a single colour microfilm, understandably get a bit grumpy when younger scholars expect everything to be freely available!

However, to get to the point of this post, lately the Austrian National Library (Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek) at Vienna (Wein) digitised some of its fragments of medieval music and kindly placed them on the internet. Exceptionally, most of these fragments had only been recently discovered. Naturally most late medieval music researchers were (well, at least I was) gripped with excitement, wishing to discover what music was contained in these fragments. To our amazement, these new sources yielded several copies of pieces of music that were already known from other manuscripts. So what’s the big deal, you might ask. For medieval music researchers, it is a big deal when a new version of a piece of music in notation is discovered. Because medieval music was copied by hand (the music printing press wasn’t invented until 1473 and only really took off in the following century), every copy is different, sometimes in very substantial ways. One of the tasks of the music philologist is to discover surviving copies of the same piece of music in different manuscripts (known as concordances) and determine their relationship to one another by looking closely at how the musical readings (notes, accidentals, text, shared errors, etc.) differ from one another. Thanks to the Austrian National Library placing legible colour images of their manuscripts online, the first step of discovering concordances has proven to be particularly productive. Here are some interesting discoveries offered up by these new images:

[Update 14 July 2013: The MQMÖN site has moved to a new address: All links have been updated. The problems with the lack of PURLs/URNs persists.]

[Update 18 April 2013: Due to changes to the interface for viewing images on the Musikalische Quellen des Mittelalters in der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek project website, I am no longer able to link directly to images of particular folios of manuscript fragments from the Austrian National library. You will need to navigate to the correct folio in each case by clicking on their little camera icon and selecting the required folio. Sadly, this design violates several principles of good online archival practice, especially the lack of an URI or digital object identifier for each image. I sincerely hope that the designers of this site might remedy these shortfalls in the future.]

Vienna, Austrian National Library, Fragm 123a: fol. 2v (2b) contains the isorhythmic motet Beatius se servans liberat / Cum humanum sit peccare (listed as “Agacius…” on the website; also see this link), providing a concordance with Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, NAL 2444, f. 49r and a recently discovered source at Würzburg (thanks to Michael Cuthbert for pointing out the second concordance). It may be identical to the motet Cum humanum listed in the index for Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, NAF 23190.

Vienna, Austrian National Library, Fragm. 922: fol. 2r (2a) contains another concordance for Bernard de Cluny’s musician’s motet Pantheon abluitur / Apollonis eclipsatur / Zodiacum signs lustrantibus / IN OMNEM TERRAM. This brings the total surviving copies of this motet to thirteen (I think), making it one of the most frequently copied motets from the late fourteenth century. Michael Cuthbert also informed me that the other previously identified piece in this fragment is the anonymous Gloria Qui Sonitu Melodie, another piece of “international” polyphony found in sources now at Apt, Cambrai, Grottaferrata, Ivrea, Munich, Padua, and Rochester.

Vienna, Austrian National Library, Cod 3917: the back of this front pastedown in cod. 3917 contains a complete concordance of the virelai Orsus! vous dormes trop, ma dame, a song also found in Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, N.A.F. 6771 (“Reina Codex”), 78v-79r. With some effort, you can read most of the notes (which appear reversed/mirrored) through the parchment. Perhaps a digital guru will find a way to make this more legible in the future!

Vienna, Austrian National Library, Mus.Hs.1953.B: a new concordance for the song Soit tart tempre, mayn ou soir appears on the reverse of this music fragment, with a yet another contratenor, different to the one in Modena, Biblioteca Estense, alpha.M.5.24 (WARNING: This is a link to a 13 MB PDF file) but related to the one in the Reina Codex. The English song My ladi my ladi myn happ und myn hele merry dier has already been discussed in the literature. Michael Scott Cuthbert tells me that he and John Nádas also identified Soit tart tempre on fos. 15v/16r [originally xxv/xxvi] of Florence, San Lorenzo, ms. 2211.

There are a few more concordances to fragments in the Austrian National Library, for example in Fragm. 406 (French songs) and Fragm. 661 (includes a Du Fay motet), that I have not mentioned here. I do not wish to steal someone else’s thunder. The next step is to look closely at the musical readings in these sources, so that we might learn more about how music was transmitted and copied in the late middle ages.

I thank Dominique Gatte for alerting me to the Austrian National Library’s music manuscript digitisations and members of the Facebook group Ars Nova: Group for the Study of 14th- and Early 15th-century Music for sharing their thoughts on these fragments. Anna Zayarusnaya must be credited with prompting me to revisit this topic in this post.

11 thoughts on “Armchair philology – Musical treasures from the Austrian National Library

  1. Or sus vous dormes trop is actually contained in many more sources.The LaTrobe database mentions another 6.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Oscar. I’m quite familiar with the other sources of this virelai, and hadn’t intended to list all concordances in a blog. Nonetheless, thanks for pointing it out to readers!

  2. Dear Jason,
    Thanks for sharing these news – I only just found this blog of yours 🙂
    I have actually been working on these fragments in the past year for the Vienna project “Musical Life in the Austrian Region in the Late Middle Ages” with Reinhard Strohm and Birgit Lodes and have found a number of chanson concordances, which will be published with this project, soon. Amongst them “Or sus vous dormez trop”, which I had already edited – it contains some interesting little formulas which are unique to this source. There is more to come, soon.
    Best wishes,
    Yours Marc Lewon

    1. Dear Marc,
      Thanks for your informative comment. The “Musical Life in the Austrian Region in the Late Middle Ages” project sounds very interesting – I look forward to hearing (reading) more about it soon!

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s