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Restoring Lost Songs: Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy


Notation survives in five manuscripts for this poem: two from England (GEN 175 and OX Auct. F. I. 15), two from northern France (BE 181 and ALE 12), and one from Einsiedeln (EIN 302). The neumatic notations in the manuscripts from England and northern France are close in melodic profile, especially those in BE 181, GEN 175, OX Auct. F. I. 15. The neumes in GEN 175 are taken as the basis for the following reconstruction, informed by the clear relative heighting and additional pitch information in the form of significative letters in BE 181.

A starting point for reconstruction is provided by the similarity between the English and northern French neumes, and a securely reconstructable melody transmitted in two manuscripts for Horace’s ode O fons Bandusiae (III:13).[1]

The neumes in BE 181 support the proposed melodic association through: i) the indications of relative heighting in the placement and shape of the neumes (see, for example, the diagonally descending single note signs at 1.2, 1.4-5 etc.); and ii) indications of raised tones at 1.3 (l for levate, raise up), 1.7 (s for sursum, at a higher pitch) and 2.3 (s). A reconstruction of the melody for the opening couplet, which is repeated for the following couplet, may therefore be proposed based on the neumes added to GEN 175 and informed by BE 181 in particular.

From the third couplet (lines 5-6) onwards, a set of more creative decisions need to be made about melodic reconstruction. The neumes for the third couplet show a similar overall pattern of higher and lower pitches to the first couplet, but also clear differences through a more elaborate intonations at 5.1 and 5.7, and a rising three-note neume at 5.9.[1] A general guide to melodic reconstruction at ths point is provided by four-line strophic hymns, in which modal contrast commonly follows opening melodic repetition.[3]

In the proposed reconstruction of the third couplet, the melodic axis is shifted to the strongest secondary pole within the authentic Protus mode established by the opening couplet, i.e. the pitch a. The resulting shift in tessitura, entailing an upper note of above and f below, follows the common practice of placing emphasis on notes within the primary third chain of D-F-a-c in Protus melodies.

The decision to end the third couplet with an open cadence on a is made on two grounds: i) the normal practice within strophic song of balancing closed cadences on the final with open cadences on other degrees of the scale; and ii) the grammatical continuity at this point in the strophe, which is equivalent to a modern comma. The preceding neumes suggest a characteristic approach to the cadence from a tone below, realised here by repeated notes on the local sub- finalis (at copia – see the row of horizontal single tone signs in BE 181, which differ from the diagonal disposition used for a falling melodic profile). Beginning the shorter line of the couplet on the medial f (rather than returning to the finald) leaves only one plausible solution for pleno. At the beginning of the first line of the third couplet, the intonation provides a link from the low d to the new local centre of a. Thereafter, the relative heighting of signs in GEN 175 and BE 181 is followed, with f as the floor note and c as the ceiling note, which produces a minor third recitation pattern after the caesura (nec retrahat manum).

Reconstruction of the melody for fourth couplet is also best approached backwards. The series of falling two-note signs each placed slightly lower over flere que- limits possibilities before the cadential turn that also falls to the final. Retaining the a-D axis of the whole results in a progressive fall from a before the final turn. The beginning of the fourth couplet is approached by retaining the F-a-c axis established in the third couplet, with the s at 7.7 in BE 181 informing the rise to the high c at an otherwise ambiguous conjunction of two single note signs indicating relatively high pitches (at 7.6 and 7.7)

The reconstructed melody for the first strophe of Si quantas rapidis in GEN 175 informed by BE 181 is therefore:


The strophic melodic pattern of AABC leaves twelves lines or six couplets in the metrum. The simplest mathematical solution for the remaining lines would be to reprise the melody twice without the initial A repetition, i.e. ABC ABC. This pattern follows the text, which has a complete sentence strecthing from lines 9-14. Confirmation that this is the intended melodic design is provided by the GEN 175 notation, which follows the opening melodic AABC with ABC.

A reconstructed melody for the whole text can be found here.

The reconstruction given here follows that provided for the first two lines in Sam Barrett, The Melodic Tradition of Boethius’ De consolatione philosophiae in the Middle Ages, Kassel etc.: 2013, vol. I, 106-8, which includes discussion of the way that the melody reads the metre. For a table aligning all five surviving notations, see vol. II, 210-11.


[1] PA 7979, fol. 8r, as edited in S. Wälli, Melodien aus mittelalterlichen Horaz-Handschriften: Edition und Interpretation der Quellen Monumenta monodica medii aevi, Subsidia 3 (Kassel and Basel, 2002), no. 24.

[2] An error in the copying of the base text in BE 181, where the word ‘manum’ was originally omitted, disrupts the distribution of neumes towards the end of line 5. GEN 175 was used to confirm the alignment of text and neumes at this point in the reconstruction.

[3] See, for example, melodies for Sanctorum meritis, which is composed of three Asclepiad lines followed by a Glyconic, in Bruno Stäblein (ed.), Hymnen (I) Die mittelalterlichen Hymnenmelodien des Abendlandes, Kassel and Basel, 1956, esp. nos. 108 and 420. The opening lines of a set of melodies recorded in Spanish sources for Sanctorum meritis are particularly close to the melody recorded for Si quantas rapidis. The continuation of a version recorded in Archivo Musical de la Catedral de Huesca 1 fol. 49r, with its expansion to the upper a-d’ tetrachord in the third Asclepiad line followed by a decorated fall from a-D in the final Glyconic, are particularly notable.