Trinity College, Cambridge, Monday 6th June
Participants gathered at the magnificent Wren Library, designed by Sir Christopher Wren to give as much light as possible to readers via the great windows overlooking The Backs. We were greeted by the Librarian, Dr. Nicolas Bell, whom many of us remember talking on Cluniac monasticism at the Lewes weekend. Nicolas’s profound knowledge of mediaeval music manuscripts became apparent when he showed us a number of the Library’s treasured mss., including that containing the Vespers composed for St. Edmund of Canterbury, Archbishop and Confessor, which we were to sing in the chapel that afternoon.
One could only admire the skill and dedication of the scribes working in a dark, unheated room who had written page after page of Latin in Gothic script, creating a work of art, and those who had added the square notes on the red stave lines earlier prepared for them. The books we saw were quite small, being intended as an aide-memoire for a cantor, but larger books were also made for several singers to read from a stand, as depicted in many pictures. One book we saw contained an early example of polyphony, three staves of music being written over a single line of text. Another was a scroll of carols written in 1415 after the victory at Agincourt. This was about 20 foot long, to be gradually unrolled by the cantor as he sang the text from a lectern, with pictures interspersed between paragraphs of text, but upside down, so the audience could see illustrations of the narrative being sung as the cantor continued his narrative. Early cinema? Similar long rolls were in use for the singing of the Exultet by the deacon after entry into the unlit church at the beginning of the Easter Vigil.
Nicolas was asked how these precious manuscripts had survived the general destruction that had followed the Reformation. One source was in the binding of books. The wooden boards used as covers for books tended to leach sap which would in time damage the endpapers. Any handy piece of vellum such as a page from a redundant book of chant music could be inserted between the board and the endpaper in order to protect it. A less likely source was in the wall of a church, such as that of Springfield Church in Essex, where the Springfield Antiphoner was found, and was consulted by Christopher Hodkinson when completing his transcription of the Vespers of St. Edmund.
Christopher had prepared for us an easily readable performance edition of the Vespers, which we rehearsed and sang in the college chapel after lunch. He had added excellent translations throughout, and added the antiphons for Lauds,as well as detailed notes on the complex ceremony which would have accompanied peerformance of this office. The last seven pages of the booklet contained facsimiles of the original ms. which we had seen in the morning, so that singers could compare the transcribed text with the original. It was interesting to note that the texts of the antiphons were mostly written in rhyme.
It was a pleasure and a privilege to have the opportunity to sing in the chapel of Trinity College. I believe it was the first time the schola had sung there.