"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Music Tuesday: Songs from Boëthius’ “Consolation of Philosophy”

For many years now I have been fascinated by and have fallen in love with medieval music.  Back in April, songs reconstructed from a 1000 year old text that had been lost since the middle of the 19th century was performed at Cambridge.  From the University of Cambridge website

‘Songs of Consolation’, to be performed at Pembroke College Chapel, Cambridge on April 23, is reconstructed from neumes (symbols representing musical notation in the Middle Ages) and draws heavily on an 11th century manuscript leaf that was stolen from Cambridge and presumed lost for 142 years.

Saturday’s performance features music set to the poetic portions of Roman philosopher Boethius’ magnum opus The Consolation of Philosophy. One of the most widely-read and important works of the Middle Ages, it was written during Boethius’ sixth century imprisonment, before his execution for treason. Such was its importance, it was translated by many major figures, including King Alfred the Great, Chaucer and Elizabeth I.

Hundreds of Latin songs were recorded in neumes from the 9th through to the 13th century. These included passages from the classics by Horace and Virgil, late antique authors such as Boethius, and medieval texts from laments to love songs.  

Two short excerpts were let out to the public.  Here’s one, titled, “Heu quam praecipiti.”

AniciusManlius Severinus Boëthius was a fifth to sixth century Roman Senator, administrator, and philosopher who had reached the highest office under the current King of Italy, which had fragmented from the western portion of the Roman Empire.  Boëthius was born in 480, just four years from when the Latin half of the Roman Empire had collapsed.  Suddenly in 523 the King impulsively and unjustly suspected his underling had become treasonous, imprisoned him, and executed in in 524.  While in prison awaiting his execution, Boëthius composed his most famous philosophic work, TheConsolation of Philosophy.    

The Consolation of Philosophy deals with life’s uncertainties and that ultimately one has to rest one’s faith not in fame or things of this world, but upon the one true good, God.  It’s one of those works that has been on my reading list for a while, but I never seem to squeeze it into my reading.

The songs were composed several hundred years after Boëthius’s death but based on his text.  From the Cambridge article:

After piecing together an estimated 80-90 per cent of what can be known about the melodies for The Consolation of Philosophy, Barrett enlisted the help of Benjamin Bagby of Sequentia – a three-piece group of experienced performers who have built up their own working memory of medieval song.

Bagby, co-founder of Sequentia, is also a director of the Lost Songs Project which is already credited with bringing back to life repertoires from Beowulf through to the Carmina Burana.

Over the last two years, Bagby and Barrett have experimented by testing scholarly theories against the practical requirements of hand and voice, exploring the possibilities offered by accompaniment on period instruments. Working step-by-step, and joined recently by another member of Sequentia, the harpist-singer Hanna Marti, songs from The Consolation of Philosophy have now been brought back to life.

Oh I love Sequentia.  I have a few of their recordings.  I do hope they eventually record the entire composition and put it out for sale.  Here is the other excerpt put out for the public, titled “Carmina qui quondam.”

Just lovely.


  1. It is fascinating how they can reconstruct music composed such a long time ago from musical score and notes found on manuscripts. How inconsiderate of these ancient people not to have left any tape recordings, or even vynil records of their music. So it is left to the work of historians to decipher their writings and put it to music.

    Here is a piece of Burana which I am sure you will appreciate. It is called O Fortuna.


    God bless.

    1. That was great. I remember seeing that before. Maybe I saw it on your blog.

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