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A Millennium Later, Musicians Perform Lost Piece Of Beautiful Medieval Music In Cambridge

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Unlike our corporeal selves, music doesn't die. It gets passed on from generation to generation, century after century, keeping its magic alive.

This magic is what musicians from the University of Cambridge shared when they had performed, for the first time in 1,000 years, reconstructed pieces of medieval music at the Pembroke College Chapel on April 23.

Named "Songs of Consolation," the ancient musical piece was reconstructed within a span of 20 years from "neumes" -- medieval symbols that represented notation.

The tunes themselves accompanied poems from the magnum opus of Roman philosopher Boethius -- a piece called, "The Consolation of Philosophy."

Hundreds of songs in Latin had been recorded in neumes from the 9th century through the 13th century. These songs comprised of passages by Virgil, Horace, Boethius, and medieval texts from love songs to laments.

Boethius' work is one of the most widely read and important works of the Middle Ages, and was written during his imprisonment in the sixth century, right before his execution for treason. The Consolation of Philosophy is so valuable that major figures such as Elizabeth I, King Alfred the Great, and Geoffrey Chaucer had translated it.

Two decades seems an awful lot of time to conduct an extensive research for a concert, but in truth, performing ancient works of art is not as simple as reading and playing sheet music.

One thousand years ago, music was created in melodic outlines and not in the modern notes as we do today. During those times, medieval music was shared through aural traditions and memories.

These traditions had died out, and it is now extremely impossible to decipher music from this wondrous era, especially because the pitches are unknown.

After painstakingly spending 20 years of work identifying the techniques used to set specific verse forms in the "Songs of Consolation," Dr. Sam Barrett of Cambridge University and his colleague Benjamin Bagby had reconstructed melodies to produce what they would later perform at Pembroke. They had also deciphered the 11th century work "Cambridge Songs."

But this almost never happened, as one particular leaf from the Cambridge Songs was "accidentally removed" from the Cambridge University Library by a German scholar in the 1840s. In other words, it was lost.

Thank goodness Barrett is part musical time traveler and part detective. His scholarly groundwork involved him and Bagby gathering together surviving notations from the Cambridge Songs and other manuscripts across the world. Barrett applied them to the principles of musical setting during the particular era.

The missing page had included vital notations that would help them understand the musical principles of the 11th century. How did they rediscover the missing sheet?

Margaret Gibson, an academic from Liverpool University, was the bridge that brought Barrett and the lost sheet closer. It turns out that in 1982, Gibson enquired whether a Frankfurt library had any manuscript of Boethius and was told of one single leaf in the collections. Gibson recognized the sheet as part of Consolation, and got in touch with medievalist Christopher Page. They secured the return to the city nearly 150 years after its disappearance.

When the lost leaf was rediscovered, the only thing left was to translate them into sound. Barrett said Bagby tried out various possibilities while he reacted to them, and vice versa.

Barrett said seeing Bagby work through options was genuinely sensational. "At times you just think, 'that's it!'"

Barrett said Bagby had brought the humanity to the "intellectual puzzle" he was trying to solve during those years of constant frustration.

And it was magic. Barrett said there had been time while he was working on the music piece when he thought he was in the 11th century himself. The music has been so close that it was almost touchable, he said.

"It's those moments that make the last 20 years of work so worthwhile," added Barrett.

Watch an excerpt of the performance below.

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