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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 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 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.
The 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. The British Library’s Online Collection also has an image from fols. 55v–56r, showing Dunstable’s motet Veni Sancte Spiritus, albeit one of doubtful quality.
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].
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