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Restoring Lost Songs: Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy

The prospect of recovering the music of lost songs of the distant past is tantalising, even more so when traces survive in unfamiliar notations that cannot be fully reconstructed.  Such is the case for arguably the earliest layer of a continuous tradition of European song, which survives in the form of notated Latin lyrics bridging late antiquity and the early middle ages.  This website introduces one body of song within this largely unknown repertory, songs from Boethius' De consolatione philosophiae (On the Consolation of Philosophy).  The resource seeks to provide access to source materials, to explain techniques of reconstruction, to offer versions created to date, and to receive feedback on the methods employed. 

Musical notation survives in manuscripts copied across the Latin West from the 9th through to the 12th century CE for hundreds of Latin poems.  These poems include passages from the classics by Horace and Virgil, poetic sections from works by late antique authors such as the Roman statesman and philosopher Boethius (c. 480–c. 525), and medieval verses from laments through to love songs.  The music of this song repertory has long been considered lost because the notational signs employed record only melodic outlines, relying on oral traditions that have now died out to provide missing details.

Research conducted by Dr Sam Barrett at the University of Cambridge has shown that principles of setting can be identified that provide key information for modern realisations.  Reconstructions nevertheless remain more or less hypothetical, and even the most well-informed are open to improvement through the sharing of insight and expertise.  Extended consultation with members of the professional ensemble Sequentia resulted in the creation of a small number of reconstructions as recorded on Boethius: Songs of Consolation. Metra from 11th-century Canterbury.  This collaboration tested out ways of working that may now be opened up to other interested performers and a wider audience.

By making materials and methods accessible to all, this resource is intended to educate and to entertain.  It is also hoped that users will feel inspired to make realisations of their own, which may be submitted to the website to be considered for inclusion in a bank of melodic reconstructions.  By creating a forum for exchange, the goal is to sustain the widest possible creative dialogue, from musical archaeologists through to performers and researchers.  It is an area of research where final answers are unlikely to be found, but more plausible solutions can be identified through experiments informed by the latest research findings. 

 

This project would not have been possible without the support provided at various stages by the British Academy, the Leverhulme Trust, the Isaac Newton Trust, the Music & Letters Trust, Pembroke College, Cambridge, the Cambridge Arts and Humanities Impact Fund, and the Faculty of Music at the University of Cambridge.