The Old Hall Manuscript

The so-called ‘Old Hall Manuscript’ (today, London, British Library, Additional MS 57950) is one of just three substantial books of late medieval polyphony to have survived from pre-Reformation England. It is presently 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 Hall’ was 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 remains obscure.

firebeastThe manuscript has lost many of its initials and about a quarter of its pages, 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 direction 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. This had the effect of accelerating the motet towards a closing climax, sometimes crowned with a resounding ‘amen’.

Online Facsimile: The entire manuscript is now available online at the British Library’s Collection of Digitised Manuscripts.

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].

Pieces for Discussion

  1. 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)) and more recently by the Gothic Voices on a CD of music for Christmas (Nowell synge we both al and som: A Feast of Christmas Music in Medieval England (Linn Records, CKD 591)).
  2. 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 angloise, 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), Guillaume Dufay (c.1400–74) and Johannes de Lymburgia (fl. 1400–1440).
        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. Somse 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 beside being a brilliant composer, he was also a distinguished mathematician and an astrologer.
        Veni Sancte Spiritus figures among the additions to the Old Hall Manuscript (fols. 55v–56r). It is Dunstable’s most famous piece and a powerful example of an isorhythmic motet—the three sections are proportioned 3:2:1. Thomas Elmham tells us that Dunstable’s setting of Veni Sancte Spiritus was one of two motets by the composer that were performed at Canterbury Cathedral on 21 August 1416 when Henry V and the king of Germany, Sigismund (1411–37), 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, fols. 111v–112r; (3) Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Musica 3224, fols. 5r–6r; and (4) Trent, Castello de Buon Consiglio, MS 92, fols. 182v–184r. It has been recorded many times. Two of the best, not least for their clarity and precision, are those by (1) the Orlando Consort (Dunstable (Metronome CD 1009)) and (2) the Gothic Voices (Echoes of an Old Hall (Linn CKD 644)). The latter CD provides a useful selection of pieces from the manuscript along with another thirteen that illustrate the wider ‘reverberations’ of the Old-Hall style. Another excellent CD which bears witness to that wider influence is Flos Virginum: Motets of the 15th Century by the German ensemble Stimmwerck (CPO 777 937–2).


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