A 21st century première for a 15th century music manuscript

Music inscribed in a beautiful and rare choral manuscript will be performed for the first time in decades, if not centuries, on Thursday, February 21

It’s all because of a librarian who sings. A 600-year-old manuscript of medieval chant will be performed at McGill for the first time in decades, if not centuries, because of a fortuitous coincidence.

Jacquelyn Sundberg, a librarian with ROAAr (Rare & Special Collections, Osler, Art, and Archives), was researching the transition from handwritten early music to music printed on a press for her Masters of Information Studies when she came upon Medieval Manuscript 73 (Ms 73) in Rare Books on the 4th floor of the McLennan Library.

“It’s so stunning for its size and beauty, I had to restrain myself from bursting into song,” says Sundberg, who belongs to award-winning Montreal choir le Choeur du Plateau in her off hours. “I knew that it was a treasure made to be shared.”

Mysterious manuscript

Ms 73 is almost three feet wide when opened, allowing all the singers to sing from the same book. The text is Medieval Latin in gothic script, with musical notation in red four-line staves on parchment and vellum, bound with leather, wood and brass bolts. McGill benefactor Casey Wood bought it in Florence in 1930 and sold it to McGill for $250 in 1931.

Ann Marie Holland, Medieval Manuscript Curator, and Associate Librarian in Rare Books and Special Collections, says though its precise history is not known, everything about it places it in 15th century Italy.

“Ms 73 is one of the highlights of our medieval collection,” says Holland. “It is an exciting, unique historical artefact with a specific functional purpose as a chant book.”

From page to performance

In early 2018, Sundberg invited Julie Cumming, Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Schulich School of Music, to the Rare Books collection to see Ms 73 with a view to performing it. Up until that point Ms 73 was known only to librarians and those who studied medieval history and the history of books and printing.

“I was just thrilled by the idea of performing this music,” says Cumming. “I had no idea that McGill owned this chant manuscript. It’s really exciting to sing from an original text.”

Cumming invited Schulich students with experience in early music to form an ensemble with Sundberg and fellow librarian Andrew Senior. The twelve have been practicing once a week since early January. Now Ms 073 is ready to go live, and will be performed at a public event entitled Saints Alive-Rediscovering Chant Manuscripts at McGill, on February 21, from 5:30 to 7:30 pm.

During the performance, phrases of the manuscript will be projected onto a screen and Cumming will teach the audience to sing along.

Comprehensive collection

Ms 73 is one of over 235 medieval European manuscripts in Rare Books and Special Collections of the McGill Library, one of the most comprehensive university library collections in Canada. You can view a digitized copy of Ms 073 here.

Since fall 2018, a digitization and cataloguing project of medieval manuscripts has been underway, coordinated by Holland, in collaboration with Greg Houston, Scanning Administrator, and Digital Librarian Sarah Severson, of McGill Library’s Digital Initiatives.

This event is hosted by ROAAr, McGill Library, and the Department of Music, with support by the Social Studies and Humanities Council of Canada. The event is full but you can put your name on the  waiting list.

For other library events click here.


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Maria Pacheco
5 years ago

Good morning,
just wondering if this event will be recorded and viewable on the Library website?
many thanks.
Maria Pacheco