Wednesday, August 12, 2009

BBC Tales Before the Stave: The Story of the 11th Century Winchester Troper

One of our British readers sent in news of this BBC programme yesterday. There are only 9 days to listen to it, and for those of you who enjoy sacred music and its history, I would encourage you to listen to it while you can.

Here is a description of the programme:

Francis Fyfield unpicks the hidden codes of a beautiful 11th-century manuscript that confirms that the English were pioneers of musical notation long before the arrival of staves.

With the help of Professor Susan Rankin and the French performer Dominique Vellard, Francis tells the story of the Winchester Troper, a tiny book belonging to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and written in Winchester around the year 1030, and how scholars have used it to clarify the way musical notation developed in the 11th and 12th centuries.

The magical discovery in the Troper was that polyphony, the use of two-part harmony, which many thought did not appear in manuscript form before the 13th century, was actually captured by the cantor scribbling in the Troper at a time when Winchester was at the heart of Anglo Saxon culture. This little book provides us with insights into the soundscape of Edward the Confessor's England.

But it only does so thanks to the scholars like Susan and Dominique who have deciphered what looks like modern shorthand notation.

The programme describes the process of unravelling the musical language and how that fits in to the broader story of the development of musical notation in Europe. Frances tries to get an idea of who this cantor was who managed to preserve a golden era of Anglo Saxon music well before the universal staves and notes were developed to simplify the process.

To listen to the programme, tune in here: Tales Before the Stave

An image of the Winchester Troper (Image source)

For those interested in this manuscript, the Henry Bradshaw Society have produced a facsimile as part of their excellent series of publications.

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