English Thirteenth-Century Polyphony: A Facsimile Edition

Early English Church Music, Volume 57

by Memory Apata

In early 2017, Dartmouth Professor Emeritus William J. Summers (Bill) walked into Paddock with a large, heavy volume in his hands and a spring in his step.  Volume 57 of Early English Church Music* is a facsimile–a collection of high quality photographs– of rare manuscripts from the Oxford Bodleian Library, British Library, Westminster Abbey, Canterbury, and Trinity College, just to name a few.  The photography is truly stunning, printed on heavy, glossy stock with incredible detail from delicate lettering and colorful, hand-drawn ornaments to the individual pores of thin leather pages.  The Claude Palisca Prize nominated book, as it turns out, was the product of more than twenty years of work, weathering changes in publisher demands, professional relationships, photographic technology, and the field of musicology itself.  I sat down with Bill, who recounted the chronicle of getting this work to print.

“My dissertation was devoted to a portion of the polyphonic repertory from England, composed and notated in the 14th century.  Another student, [Peter Leffert], at roughly the same place as I was in doctoral work, did another segment of that repertory.  I focused on pieces notated in score format and he did motets.  We were sort of on parallel courses.  It’s sort of funny;  we had a tacet agreement that we wouldn’t review each other’s work.  Also, because we needed to rely on each other infrequently, but in important ways, we didn’t want to make enemies.  At the time, the 70’s and 80’s, there were any number of music scholars who were real nasty people.  So I think both of us, being gentler spirits, didn’t want to jeopardize colleagueship.  Since we were the only people really working on this music, we just figured there [would] be plenty of other people who [would] criticize our work.  When we realized that we had learned enough and grown enough and had gotten somewhat over our egos, we decided to collaborate on this facsimile volume.  Facsimile volumes are one of the best ways to produce research tools that an individual can use to get a very quick idea of not only what survives but what compositional procedures are utilized.  We signed a contract to produce this and the basic goal was anything that had survived would be in facsimile in one volume. It would have critical apparatus, it would have text incipits, it would have a catalog of the sources.  There would be technical information about the makeup of the musical inscription process, the number of staves, [and] the type of hand if there were a particular decorative things.”

The gathering of these photographs presented several challenges, including the fact that many of the archives housing these manuscripts didn’t possess photographic equipment.  Bill had to negotiate with the historic sites to allow him to transport the fragile materials to Cambridge.

Worcester Cathedral has one of the largest collections of medieval manuscript fragments from the 13th century and it was a body of music that I wanted to get a handle on.  I got the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral to agree to have them transferred to Cambridge University Library [to] get that whole batch of fragments photographed.  I was waiting at University Library the day he was supposed to arrive like Little Orphan Annie, sitting out in front of this big, thirteen story building. I kept waiting and waiting and waiting.  Finally, almost three hours after the time he was supposed to arrive, [he] pulls up and steam is coming out of his ears.  He had gotten a speeding ticket on the way and the police wouldn’t even give him his clerical dispensation; he was wearing his collar.  He was just furious and I thought he was gonna turn around and take the whole thing back!  But he did deposit [the fragments] at the library and we did get photographs made.  These also were photographed with a special UV light supplement which meant that parts of the manuscripts which had faded or had gotten water damage or had been scraped off and new material put on, [were] all brought up clean and clear.”
Paléographie musicale - fac-similés phototypiques des principaux manuscrits de chant grégorien, ambrosien, mozarabe, gallican (1889) (14597497658).jpg
Example of a black and white facsimile** https://archive.org/stream/palographiemusic19macq/palographiemusic19macq#page/43/mode/1up

The photographs were submitted, along with critical commentary in the mid-nineties.  And then:  Nothing happened.  The musicological environment Bill described had only become harsher and he wasn’t sure the project would ever be completed.   He decided not to press the issue.

“The volume sat.  We would get emails each year saying, ‘Do you want to make any changes or additions to your volume?’ And then another 365 days would transpire and we’d get the same note. Musicology in the 1990s became extremely… competitive isn’t the right word… extremely divided along ideological lines.  The problem was there was no real communication. It was a kind of preordained lack of the ability to communicate or to be sensitive.  And this also went along with a period of time in musicology where the field got overtly hostile toward almost anyone.  I would write [Peter] every year after we got our once-a-year note and say, ‘Does anyone talk to you about what’s going on?’ I understood that [the publisher] had sort of stopped thinking of me because I had started working on other things.  I, for all intents and purposes, left medieval English music.  I always thought, ‘Maybe it’s me?”  Maybe people who had run afoul of me or didn’t like me got onto the editorial board of Early English Church Music.”

Then, out of the blue, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (then the Humanities Research Board) decided to fund DIAMM, (the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music). One of their projects was to obtain color photographs of the materials that Bill and Peter had collected.  This took about ten years, and in 2016, nearly thirty years after the start of the project, the book was ready to be published.  Bill was stunned by the quality of the materials.

“I really had no recollection of what these things look like in real life.  I had visited all the libraries, I had seen all of the manuscripts.  But it had been 15 years.  It was quite funny.  I was flabbergasted at what it was like!  Almost all previous facsimile volumes and fragments published in facsimile are in black and white.  That’s the revolutionary part of this volume, is that not only did they elect to do them in color, but they elected to do them full size.”  

But the quality of the volume, though exquisite, presents an issue.  The glossy color photos make the book extremely expensive, and although the photos of the manuscripts are available individually on DIAMM, they aren’t necessarily easy to find.

“The dilemma for me is, if you had a printout of our textual materials, you could go and find each and every one of these plates one at a time on DIAMM.  Now, it would be a very laborious process because there are 349 plates.  The only way this will get to the greater world is if they make the volume available online as a codex so you can download it and go page by page.  Single word searchability is really critical when you’re working with this because you [may] come to a section of music that is not at the beginning so you [only] have the middle of the text of a Latin sacred piece.  You can go to international databases and if you’re lucky you can find the rest of the text if it’s single word searchable.  In my opinion, you have an ideal candidate for making this [volume] available as an electronic book because that’s the only way it’s going to circulate around the world.”

*Leffert, Peter M., and William J. Summers. ENGLISH THIRTEENTH-CENTURY POLYPHONY: A Facsimile Edition. LONDON: STAINER & BELL, 2016. Print.

**Due to copyright, materials from Early English Church Music may not be represented on this blog.




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