The Old Hall Manuscript
The so-called ‘Old Hall Manuscript’ (today, London, British Library,
Additional MS 57950) is one of only three major books of late medieval
polyphony to have survived from pre-Reformation England. It is now thought
to have been produced between 1415 and 1421. Its principal contents were
copied by a single fine scribe, but other pieces were added on the blanks
which he left unfilled. Though it lends the manuscript an appropriate note
of antiquity, the name ‘Old
acquired relatively recently, after 1893 when the book was donated to the
College of St Edmund at Old Hall, near Ware in the county of Hertfordshire.
It was bought by the British Library in 1973. Its history prior to 1893
The manuscript has lost many of its initials and about a quarter
of its leaves, but the 112 folios that remain preserve 148 pieces, more
than half of which seem to have been composed by English composers in the
decades immediately preceeding its production. One remarkable feature of
the book is that it records the names of the composers of many of the pieces.
Two of the pieces are attributed to a certain ‘Roy Henry’, apparently
King Henry IV or V. The latest datable item is a wedding motet by Byttering
which was probably composed for the marriage of Henry V and Catherine of
Valois (2 June 1420). The sophistication of the music and the use of the
gold leaf in the decoration of the initials imply that the book was made
for a wealthy institution or patron. As Margaret Bent explains, ‘only an
institution with very highly trained singers and a strong musical tradition
could hope to make use of it, containing as it does some of the most sophisticated
polyphony being written anywhere at this time’. One
theory is that it was compiled for Thomas, duke of Clarence, who was killed
in battle in 1421, that it was taken thereafter for the royal chapel
of the infant king Henry VI, and that the majority of the additions
were made in the 1420s at the request of composers attached to the chapel.
The pieces entered by the original scribe were arranged for liturgical convenience,
according to the order in which they might be used in the performance of
the mass: the book may once have opened with a group of Kyrie settings
but it is these folios that are now lost; as it stands, it opens
with various settings of the Gloria
in excelsis Deo; antiphons and sequences addressed
to the virgin come next, then settings of the Credo, those of the Sanctus, those
of the Agnus Dei, and finally various ‘isorhythmic’ motets—a
type of motet in which the relative speeds of the movements and of the
various voices is regulated by strict mathematical proportions. The note
values, for example, might be shortened in regular stages, a second section
having notes, say, half the length of the first, and a third notes a
quarter the length of the first. The effect for the listener is
that the music accelerates towards a climax, sometimes crowned with a resounding
Critical Editions: (1) A. Hughes and M. Bent (eds), The
Old Hall Manuscript, Corpus mensurabilis musicae 46, 3 vols. in 4 pts.
(Middleton, WI, 1969–73)
[Oversize Score VZM]; (2) M. F. Bukofzer (ed.), John
Dunstable: Complete Works, Musica Britannica 8 (1st edn, London, 1953);
rev. M. Bent, I. Bent and B. Trowell (2nd edn, London, 1970) [for item 2 below].
Online reproductions: The British
Library Website has an image from folios
55v–56r, showing Dunstable’s
motet Veni Sancte Spiritus.
Pieces for Discussion
- Queldryk, Gloria in excelsis Deo. Queldryk
is known for only two pieces found only in the Old Hall manuscript, this
vigorous, four-part, setting of the Gloria (no. 30; fols. 25v–26r)
and a similar setting of the Credo (no.
38; fol. 75v–76r). This piece has been recorded along with a number of
others from the book by Paul Hillier and the Hilliard Ensemble: The
Old Hall Manuscript (EMI Reflexe CDC 7541112).
- John Dunstable, Veni Sancte Spiritus. John
Dunstable (d. 24 December 1453) was the leading English composer of the
first half of the fifteenth century. He helped to promote the so-called countenance
a style apparently of English origin that involved a shift away from
the rhythmic complexity which had been fashionable in the fourteenth
century towards an emphasis on fullness of sound, on smooth melodic writing,
on consonance as opposed to dissonance, and on regular structures. In
one of the few periods when English composers were at the forefront of
musical trends, this style was widely admired and imitated on the Continent:
its impact may be seen in the music of the leading Burgundian composers,
Gilles de Binchois (c.1400–60) and Guillaume Dufay (c.1400–74).
Dunstable is thought to have spent a large part of
his career, from after 1422, in France in the service of John of Lancaster,
duke of Bedford (1389–1435), who was regent of France and later
governor of Normandy. There is rather more evidence, however, that he enjoyed
the patronage of Joan, widow of Henry IV (d. 1437), before entering
the service of Humphrey, duke of Gloucester (1390–1447). He wrote
at least one motet for St Albans Abbey (Albanus roseo rutilat),
but he was buried at the Church of St Stephen Walbrook, London. Some seventy
pieces by Dunstable have survived, the vast majority of them in manuscripts made in southern Germany and northern Italy. Dunstable’s epitaph tells us that
he was a distinguished mathmatician and astrologer as well as a musician.
Sancte Spiritus figures among the additions to the Old Hall Manuscript. It
is his most famous piece and a powerful example of an isorhythmic motet—the
three sections are proportioned 3:2:1. Thomas Elmham tells us that Veni
Sancte Spiritus was
one of two motets by Dunstable which were performed at Canterbury Cathedral on
21 August 1416 when Henry V and the Emperor Sigismund attended a ceremony celebrating
the treaty of Canterbury and English victories in France. The motet is
also found in four other copies: (1) Aosta, Biblioteca
del Seminario Maggiore, A1 D19, fols. 274v–275r, 276v–277r;
(2) Modena, Biblioteca Estense e Universitaria, a.X.1.11,
(3) Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Musica
3224, fols. 5r–6r; and
(4) Trent, Castello de Buon Consiglio 92,
fols. 182v–184r. It
has been recorded many times. One of the best, not least for its clarity,
is that by the Orlando Consort: Dunstable
(Metronome CD 1009).
- Bent, M., ‘A New Canonic Gloria and the Changing Profile of
Dunstable’, Plainsong and Medieval Music, 5 (1996), 45–67. Has much about the manuscript evidence for Dunstable’s activities as
an astrologer. Available from Cambridge Core.
- Bent, M., Dunstaple, Oxford Studies of Composers 17 (London, 1981).
- Bent, M., ‘Dunstaple, John (d. 1453)’, Oxford Dictionary
of National Biography (Oxford, 2004).
- Bent, M., ‘Sources
of the Old Hall Music’, Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association,
94 (1967–1968), 19–35. JSTOR.
- Bent, M., ‘The
Old Hall Manuscript’, Early Music,
2 (1974), 2–14. JSTOR; Oxford Journals. Includes plates from several
- Curtis, G. R. K. ‘Stylistic
Layers in the English Mass Repertory c.1400–1450’, Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association,
- Hughes, A., and M. Bent, ‘The Old Hall Manuscript—A Reappraisal
and an Inventory’, Musica Disciplina, 21 (1967), 97–148.
- Hughes, A., ‘Continuity, Tradition
and Change in English Music up to 1600’, Music & Letters,
46 (1965), 306–15. JSTOR.
- Stell, J.,
and A. Wathey, ‘New Light on the Biography of John Dunstable?’, Music & Letters,
62 (1981), 60–63. JSTOR. On Dunstable’s assocation with St Stephen’s, Walbrook.
- Trowell, B., ‘Proportion in the Music of Dunstable’, Proceedings
of the Royal Musical Association, 105 (1978–9), 100–41.
- Wathey, A., ‘Dunstable in France’, Music & Letters,
67 (1986), 1–36. JSTOR.
- Wilkins, N., Music in the Age of Chaucer, Chaucer Studies 1 (Cambridge,
1979), pp. 82–84. Oversize VV8.B.
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