The Boston Camerata performs medieval music for the digital age

Posted on March 3, 2015 by Sharon Lacey

Before the age of print all books were manuscripts (the word means hand written), and therefore each existing manuscript is a unique artifact. A manuscript’s text, images and material components contain clues to the cultural, artistic, political, and technological achievements of the people who made it and provide a marvelous window on their world.

A music manuscript, however, demands not only to be read, but also to be performed, for it to shed its light. The Boston Camerata are uniquely suited to this task. Presented by the Center for Art, Science & Technology’s MIT Sounding series, the Boston Camerata– now celebrating its 60th season – will perform some music that was not heard for centuries in two concerts at MIT. Only MIT Professor Michael Cuthbert’s computer-aided analyses, and the group’s highly specialized techniques and all parties’ rigorous scholarship, made it possible to break the silence.

Padua, Biblioteca Universitaria. MS 1475, Folio 6r.
Padua, Biblioteca Universitaria. MS 1475, Folio 6r.

According to Cuthbert, “For decades, the Camerata has represented Boston throughout the world with an amazing range of beautifully performed and exquisitely researched programs. It is wonderful to have them close to home at MIT presenting two concerts, one of which includes music that was rediscovered only through the use of technologies created at MIT for uncovering pieces from otherwise illegible fragments from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.”


The digital age has sparked a revival in manuscript studies, with a new breed of scholars emerging in the 1990s—digital medievalists—leading some of the most technologically sophisticated projects in the digital humanities. As early adopters of digital technologies, manuscript scholars saw the potential of using new noninvasive imaging techniques and new forms of data analysis to do some serious sleuthing into an age once wrongfully labeled “dark” (roughly the 5th to 10th centuries), and into the later medieval period.

Michael Cuthbert (MIT Associate Professor of Music), who has worked extensively on computational musicology and early music, with particular emphasis on the period between the start of the Black Death in 1348 to the Great Schism in 1417, has contributed significantly to this area of research as the creator and principal investigator of the Music21 project. Thanks to Music21, many manuscript fragments and palimpsests of trecento and quattrocento music have been recovered. Cuthbert both applies enhanced imaging techniques and runs partial scores through his Python-based Music21 program to find matches for the fragmented material in extant manuscripts. Below is an example of a palimpsest from MS San Lorenzo 2211 that Cuthbert made visible using Photoshop.

Gif of recovered score from palimpsest, MS San Lorenzo 2211. Photo: Courtesy Myke Cuthbert.
Gif of recovered score from palimpsest, MS San Lorenzo 2211. Photo: Courtesy Myke Cuthbert.

Palimpsests are common in all types of manuscripts because the costliness of vellum made repurposing materials necessary. But Cuthbert points out that the practice of scraping out the old to make way for the new is especially common with music manuscripts because music went out of fashion faster than many texts. Despite this practice, he believes we have approximately 60% of the music produced in the medieval period.


The Boston Camerata focuses on an important chapter of cultural history when France and Italy were competing centers in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Working in collaboration with Cuthbert, their residency focuses on the performance and rediscovery of works spanning the twelfth to fifteenth centuries, with all the inherent ambiguities and possibilities for creative reinterpretation this rich musical period provides.

Anne Azéma, Director of the Boston Camerata, trained as a singer in Strasbourg and is also a manuscript scholar, with a special interest in the trouvère and troubadour tradition. She spent four years studying Bodleian, MS Douce 308, a 14th century book of trouvère poetry, which she finds fascinating because it is “musical description without a note of music.” It was the literature that was her entry point into this world of medieval musical performance.

For their concerts at MIT, she sees the Camerata’s job as making the music of this period “readable, meaningful and understandable.” Azéma adds that she is particularly excited to share the Camerata’s work at MIT because, “MIT students have bright minds and also see this large vista of what the world might be in future years. Music is part of that world – emotionally, culturally and scientifically.”

The first of the Camerata’s concerts at MIT, “Portes du Ciel (Heaven’s Gate): Songs from Medieval France,” took place in the newly-refurbished MIT Chapel, built by Eero Saarinen in the mid-1950s. The acoustics and reverential atmosphere of the space complemented the subject of the concert. “Heaven’s Gate” is the magnificent repertoire of secular and sacred songs produced near Reims in the regions of Champagne, Picardy, and Lorraine. These songs in praise of the Virgin Mary were composed in both the courtly and popular manners. The production includes noble songs in the refined trouvère style, narrations in word and song, and dance music with sacred texts. The following are among the evening’s musical delights: The prior of Vic-sur-Aisne, Gauthier de Coincy (1177/8-1236), a passionate and prolix musician-poet, recounts the miracles of the Virgin that took place in his parish; Thibaut de Champagne (1201-1253), count of Champagne and king of Navarra, praises the Queen of Heaven in an elegant and subtle style; anonymous minstrels transform the worldly songs of the day into vigorous, toe-tapping spirituals.

“Of All the Flowers: Sacred and Secular Song of the Later Middle Ages,” a specially commissioned program for MIT, will be performed in Walker Memorial on March 6, 2015. According to Anne Azéma, Director of the Boston Camerata, “The constantly evolving and inventive musical minds of Italian and French masters during the fourteenth century have left us with repertoires, both sacred and secular, that successfully unite the search for new and different creative paths with astonishing lyricism and sensual beauty.” In this concert, the Camerata’s virtuoso soloists and instrumentalists will perform music “spanning the worlds of God and Man,” by the greatest composers of their day, including Machaut, da Firenze, and da Bologna.

In addition to these two performances, the Camerata’s residency involves intensive engagement with Cuthbert’s seminar students from 221M.220 Medieval and Renaissance Music, as well as workshops with the Madrigals and the Chamber Chorus.

From the Page to Performance

Word, sound and image interact differently in manuscripts; while contemporary readers may appreciate medieval texts without fully grasping the oral and aural properties of early books, the situation is quite different with music manuscripts. Contemporary audiences need skilled musicians like the Boston Camerata to make the pages of these medieval books sing.

The Boston Camerata is part of MIT Sounding. This program is sponsored by MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST), and co-sponsored by Music & Theater Arts (MTA).

Read more about the Boston Camerata. Read more about CAST Visiting Artists.