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Music : The Later Cambridge Songs


<p style='text-align: justify;'>The manuscript Cambridge, University Library, Ff.1.17.1, dated 1180-<i>c</i>.1230, here called <i>The Later Cambridge Songs</i>, was for centuries hidden away and unregarded as part of the binding of a much larger manuscript of slightly later date. The thirty-five songs were copied onto parchment of the poorest quality. The four bifolia were already holed, torn, and creased; some of the holes were re-sewn before use. Over the centuries, with the rebinding of the main manuscript, the flyleaves have been further damaged by glue, hot water, and misplaced binding folds. Age and damp have also taken their toll. The resulting object is physically unhandsome, and in some places untranscribable.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Despite such serious blemishes—or, paradoxically, because of them—this manuscript booklet is of quite exceptional interest. It is a rare survivor of a general species of manuscript which must in its time have been numerous—the informal. Unlike the huge majority of surviving manuscripts from this early period, it was evidently not intended to last. It contains nothing other than the songs, which are untitled, unattributed, and unrubricated. So mean an object could not conceivably have been dedicated or presented to anyone; and it would not have deserved a place in any library. An informal music book of this kind is rare indeed, and in early medieval Britain unique.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>British provenance has sometimes been questioned. However, the only positive manuscript evidence points to England. It must have been there at the time of binding, probably in the area of Leicester in the East Midlands. A Latin inscription naming 'Frater Roger of Schepiswed' as the donor of the first item of the theological main manuscript (a well-known <i>Summa de vitiis et virtutibus</i>) appears in the musical flyleaves, and, shortened, also in the main manuscript itself. Shepshed is a village just west of Loughborough. </p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The main manuscript, now Ff.1.17.2, 292 folios, was acquired from the library of Richard Holdsworth, Master of Emmanuel College, in 1664. At that time MS Ff.1.17.1 had been bound with it for about four centuries as guard-leaves. The two manuscripts came together in the later thirteenth century. The four bifolia which the binder took off his scrap pile would by then have outlived their usefulness, and their music could have been outmoded. The miracle is that he used them entire, wrapping them round the 'new' manuscript without mutilation, except for minimal clipping.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The unhandsomeness of the song booklet, it must be stressed, was there from the beginning, not only in the materials chosen but in the style of presentation. All the texts were intended for music; the ten which are not notated have either blank staves or blank spaces of the appropriate size. The songs were assembled, it appears, by a small group of scribes, working often in considerable haste with scant regard for design, execution, or even consistent legibility. They were not amateurs, but fluent trained scribes, accustomed to copying texts and notating complicated music. (The notation is fluid and cursive, transitional between neumatic and square.) However, on this occasion their standards were low, and a great deal of their work is casual and freehand. It seems likely that they were also the performers.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>This apparently self-contained song booklet of sixteen pages transmits thirty-five songs on secular and sacred subjects. The texts are entirely in Latin with the exception of nos. 27 and 31, which introduce phrases in Anglo-Norman. Songs 1-22 are monophonic (twelve unique to the MS); songs 23-35 are polyphonic for two voices (nine unique), with the exception of song 28, for three. The forms are varied and include conducti, strophic cantiones, and sequences; refrain-songs are frequent amongst them. The range of general literary themes is wide; and although the collection is emphatically not liturgical in the narrow sense, the great feasts of the Christmas season, from Advent to Candlemas, are much in evidence. The authors, at least of the texts, whose identities can be deduced from concordances, include Walter of Châtillon, Peter of Blois, and Philip the Chancellor. </p>John Stevens† <br />from the Introduction to <i>The Later Cambridge Songs: An English song collection of the twelfth century</i> (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). Reproduced by permission of <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>Oxford University Press</a>.

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