Sunday, September 30, 2007

Get to the Getty while the getting is good

Next month, I’m hoping to visit the exhibition of hand-copied medieval church music being shown at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The exhibition, which closes Oct. 28, was covered earlier this month in the Los Angeles Times. (I learned of the article and the exhibition because I follow the LA Times religion section via RSS feed).

I can’t explain it better than reporter Francisco Vara-Orta:
Before the advent of the 15th century printing press that eventually made books available to the masses, Christian priests, monks and nuns in the Middle Ages relied on rare, handmade and colorfully illustrated choir books to preserve their music generation to generation.

Music in the religious world in Europe had been passed down orally until the 800s, when monks began to transcribe their melodies onto the parchment of their choir books. Now more than 40 of these works, dating from 1170 to the early 1500s, are part of the “Music for the Masses” exhibit at the Getty Center.

“These manuscripts offer one of the best windows into learning about the Middle Ages,” said Christine Sciacca, assistant curator of the Getty Museum’s department of manuscripts. “It shows not just what people saw but also what sound was like back then.”
Of course, the Getty is an art museum, so the emphasis is on the drawings and illustrations, not upon the (Latin) words (still Latin). Still, the Getty emphasizes the importance of the manuscripts as among the earliest examples of written Western music:
Beginning in the 800s in Europe, music was first transcribed with “neumes,” which look like a cluttered collection of rising and falling dots and lines. Rather than representing specific notes to be sung as is done today, the neumes instead indicated whether the vocalist should go higher or lower in pitch and how long to hold a tone.

Eventually, around the 1260s, the chants became more elaborate and the neumes were replaced by small squares written along a horizontal, usually red, four-line staff. Today, notes are written in rounded forms on a five-line staff.
Even without visiting the museum, some photographs and explanatory information are available on the Getty’s website. One webpage explains examples of the two forms of notation, i.e. the neumes and four-line staff. Another page explains the difference between the gradual and missal (for the mass) and the antiphonal and beviary (for the daily prayers). Some of the books can be browsed online.

The highlight of the exhibition is the 12th century Stammheim Missal, saved from an abbey in Lower Saxony. In true museum fashion, the Getty is selling a coffee table book of reproductions from the missal. The latter is not from this exhibition, but the Getty’s earlier 2001 exhibition “Illuminated Liturgical Manuscripts.”

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