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'Capturing sounds, designing notation, writing music'

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Systems of musical notation invented in the early middle ages form a basis for later western notations: the line from these to the twenty-first century is unbroken (unlike the notations of Greek antiquity, or the more recent notations of other cultures), even if the needs of later periods were not at all like those experienced between 800 and 900. How the makers of those early notations heard articulated musical sound, into what separate elements they chose to break it down, and which of these elements were then recorded in writing are all questions of relevance to anyone interested in notations and in those ways in which makers of music communicate their ideas.

It was certainly in the hundred years between 800 and 900 that musical notation consisting of ‘neumes’ was first invented and then developed to an eventually quite complex system: the most refined notations (visible in writing of circa 900) can be described as written records of melodic rhetoric, reflecting typical Carolingian concerns with clarity of expression. The extent to which these notations had been rendered capable of carrying subtlety of meaning as well as calligraphically stylish has prompted me to consider how such ways of writing music had been achieved by 900.

Juxtaposition of those various types of musical notation which are visible by circa 900 allows examination of their graphic relations, of what is graphically similar or dissimilar, and their sharing of techniques for modifying basic signs. Using a strict methodology of comparison, it has been possible to work out stages of influence and exchange between these notations, allowing new perceptions of what came first and how it was then changed. And most of the conclusions have surprised me, since they were so unsuspected! This exploration of early neumatic notations has led to an explanation of how and why this variety of musical scripts was developed during the ninth century—a period which has hitherto remained rather obscure in histories of musical notation, despite its supreme interest.

Susan Rankin holds a personal chair in the University of Cambridge as ‘Professor of Medieval Music’. She was educated at the universities of Cambridge, King’s College London and Paris (École Pratique des Hautes Études, IVeme section). Her scholarly work engages with music of the middle ages through its sources and notations and through its place and meaning within ritual. Those ways in which music was exploited as an element within church ritual, and especially in dramatic ceremonies, have formed a long-term focus of study. A second focus has been the palaeography of musical sources copied at Sankt Gallen in the early middle ages. Most recently she has edited a facsimile of the early eleventh-century ‘Winchester Troper’ (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 473 ), demonstrating to what extent it is possible to transcribe the earliest European repertory of two-part polyphony. In Spring 2007 she gave the Lowe lectures at the University of Oxford entitled ‘Impressed on the Memory: Musical Sounds and Notations in the Ninth Century’, and this forms the basis of her current project while based at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. She was elected fellow of the British Academy in 2009.

This talk is part of the Faculty of Music Colloquia series.

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