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Restoring Lost Songs: Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy


Bella bis quinis is sung by Philosophia following a dialogue in which she has argued that Boethius ought not to succumb to his fallen state.  She postulates that every kind of Fortune is in fact beneficial since it either rewards the good or corrects the bad.  Boethius therefore ought to retain his mental strength, for it is up to him to make the most of his situation by transforming adversity into an opportunity for correction and wisdom.  Philosophia then proceeds in Bella bis quinis to weave together tales in which heroes have struggled to overcome bleak circumstances, from Agamemnon’s sack of Troy, to Odysseus’ blinding of the Cyclops, to the twelve labours of Hercules.  She concludes with a stern moral injunction to overcome the self in order to achieve the highest goals.

The metrum is composed in Sapphic lines, comprising eleven syllables in a fixed pattern of long and short syllables:

¯ ˘ ¯ ¯ ¯ | ˘ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯ x

The penultimate syllables before the fixed caesura and at the end of the line are routinely accented, resulting in a pattern that is conventionally represented as 5p + 6p.  The poem closes with a half line that ends at the caesura.

An alphabetic notation for Bella bis quinis survives in a north Italian theory treatise of c. 1000 CE once attributed to Odo (see further Barrett, vol. II, pp. 184–7).



These securely attested pitches allow an informed reading of versions recorded in neumatic notation.  For the recording with Sequentia, we focused on manuscripts from Canterbury and in this instance used one now held in the Bodleian Library at Oxford under the shelfmark Auct. F. I. 15.  This manuscript was copied at St Augustine’s Canterbury in the mid eleventh century and was eventually in the possession of Bishop Leofric (d. 1073), who donated it to Exeter cathedral.


The melodic implications of the neatly drawn but small Anglo-Saxon neumes added to fol 64v can be determined by comparing the signs used with those found in contemporary liturgical manuscripts.  In this case, six separate signs may be discerned:

  1. a dot or punctum indicating a single tone (see the sign over the second syllable in the first line, or 1.2);
  2. an upright stroke or virga indicating a tone relatively high in relation to those preceding or following (1.3);
  3. a tick shape or pes indicating two rising tones (2.1);
  4. a crook shape or clivis indicating two descending tones (3.1);
  5. an upright stroke followed by two diagonally descending dots or climacusindicating 3 descending tones (3.10);
  6. a crook connected to an upright stroke or porrectus indicating a lower tone between two higher ones (1.1).

The use of signs by an individual scribe also conveys significant information.  The signs in this example are placed at different relative heights across the page, which implies that their disposition conveys information about melodic contour.  At the opening, for example, the punctum at the second syllable is placed lower than the preceding porrectus and is followed by a virga, which in itself suggests a relatively high tone.  It may therefore be assumed that the tone at the second syllable is lower than those at the first and third syllables.  Two different uses of the virga may also be discerned: i) those of equal length placed at approximately equal height in relation to each other (e.g. 1.3–5); ii) those that proceed in sequence from shorter to longer signs and trace a rising contour in their disposition across the page (e.g. 1.8–10).

Combining the information from the Pseudo-Odo melody with the information that may be recovered from the neumes permits a hypothetical reconstruction of the melody recorded in the Oxford manuscript:

The question remains how to sing this reconstructed three-line melody to a metrum of thirty-five and a half lines.  The problem is more than mathematical since there are other divisions within the poem that would appear to cut across any strophic principle of repetition.  First, the semantic content of the poem is divided into unequal units: lines 1–7 tell of the story of Agamemnon, lines 8–12 turn to Odysseus, and lines 13–32 recount the labours of Hercules; the closing moral appears in lines 33 to the end.  Secondly, the syntax does not divide neatly into three-line units.  For example, the opening tale of how Agamemnon was victorious in the Trojan war but sacrificed his daughter (Iphigenia) for a favourable wind, occupies seven lines with syntactic divisions after the third and fifth lines.



Other notations imply inventive solutions to the problem of division.  The neumes added to an eleventh-century northern French manuscript now held in Alençon (Bibliothèque municipale 12) record a wholly different melodic contour whose precise pitches cannot be securely recovered.  Even so, the neumes are of interest in this case since they were added only to the opening seven lines and show the following pattern of melodic repetition: ABC ABC’ B.   The possibility of repeating individual melodic lines to extend a strophe is also one found elsewhere in the repertory (see the description of the melodic reconstruction for Si quantas rapidis).

Any repetition of melodic units has to take account of the ‘grammatical’ features of the melody.  In the case of the reconstructed Oxford melody, there are two closed cadences on the final (in lines 1 and 3), and one open cadence a fifth above the final (in line 2).  At the caesuras, there are two closed cadences (in lines 1 and 2), and one open cadence on the sub-final (line 3).          

In view of these constraints, we opted for the following solution for the opening seven lines: ABC AABC.  The repeated A line allowed for melodic closure at the syntatic break at the end of line 5 and for melodic continuity matching syntactic continuity between lines 6 and 7.

A number of other decisions remained to be made about adapting the melody to allow performance of the remaining lines.  The first question was how best to divide up the melody to render the five-line Odysseus story.  This was initially not problematic since lines 8-10 end with a syntactic break.  A further three-line  strophe would then cut into the first line of the Hercules myth, but any sense of cutting up the story was mitigated by the fact that the account of his labours begins with a quasi-title ‘Great Hercules is famous for his toils’.  The semantic separation of this line afforded possibilities in performance for separating out the C line of the strophe as an isolated moment through its differing opening contour.  Adopting this solution also eased decisions about rendering the remainder of the Hercules story, since beginning a new strophe at line 13 allowed the labours to be recounted in the three-line units that matched points of syntactic break with strophic division.

The final question was how to manage the closing three and a half lines set aside for the closing moral.  Here a model was to hand since this unit corresponds with the Sapphic strophe as found in the hymn repertory, e.g. Christe cunctorum dominator alme, or Iste confessor domini sacratus.  Considering these lines as a self-sufficient strophe left the problem of what to sing for the final half-line.  For guidance, we looked to the only through notation for this metrum as found in a manuscript of Freising origin copied around the turn of the eleventh century and now held in Munich (the notation otherwise provides little assistance in reconstructing a performance since the neumes outline a different melodic contour divided into two-line units until the closing lines).  The notator records a much more elaborate melodic profile for the closing half-line than anything preceding, suggesting the use of terminal melismata as a way of signalling the ending of the song.  With this general principle in mind, we fashioned a closing melodic elaboration that traced a similar contour and was consistent with the grammar of the first mode melody.


For a full reconstruction of Bella bis quinis, see here.