By Stuart Frost
Music was part of daily life in medieval and Renaissance Europe and talented musicians and composers were often as highly regarded or sought after as other artists. Music was an important art form in its own right. The central role of music in medieval and Renaissance culture is reflected in many objects in the V&A’s collections. Thanks to a partnership with the Royal College of Music funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) we will be able to integrate a large number of high quality recordings into the Medieval and Renaissance galleries in an innovative and exciting manner.
Rehearsals and recordings of music for the new galleries have been taking place over recent weeks, thanks to the efforts of Giulia Nuti at the Royal College of Music. I’ll focus on one example here. The picture below this paragraph and to the left is of a page from a medieval manuscript known as the Saint Denis Missal. The book was made in Paris around 1350 and was used at the royal abbey of Saint Denis. Click on the picture for more information about it and to see other openings from the book. The Saint Denis Missal is a remarkably fine example of a Gothic manuscript and features some magnificent examples of calligraphy and illumination. It is largely because of the artistic qualities of the book that the V&A acquired it.
The pages of the missal, however, also carry countless lines of musical notation and it is some of this notation that was performed and recorded earlier this week. The work of Professor Anne Robertson on the service books of St Denis allowed Jennifer Smith of the Royal College of Music to prepare sheet music that could be rehearsed and performed by a choir of talented singers. Listening to the choir perform a piece of music that was originally sung in Paris over seven hundred and fifty years ago certainly stands out as one of my personal highlights whilst working at the V&A. The pictures at the start and end of this blog entry show the choir at work with Jennifer.
Each of the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries at the V&A will contain at least one audio-point, most of which will be built into seats. Visitors will be able to sit down, select an option from a small touch-screen and listen to an audio track delivered through a handset or a set of headphones. Many of the audio-points have been placed in a direct relationship with a key object. Visitors will be able to look at the Saint Denis Missal, for example, whilst listening to music that is written on its pages. Each of the audio-points will include recordings provided by the Royal College of Music. We hope that the recordings will help visitors to the galleries understand the culture that produced the objects displayed around them, to stimulate their imagination and to enhance their feel for medieval and Renaissance culture.
The first phase of the Listening Gallery project led to the integration of a number of beautiful recordings of music within the recent temporary exhibition Baroque 1620-1800: Style in the Age of Magnificence. If you have visited the exhibition I’m very keen to hear your views about how the recordings playing in the exhibition space impacted on your visit. For those of you unable to visit the exhibition physically a number of recordings are available to download online.
The Listening Gallery Project has been a fascinating one to be involved with. The commitment, expertise and passion of all the staff and students at the Royal College of Music involved with the project has been truly inspirational. Thanks to Peter Kelleher and Maike Zimmermann at the V&A we’ve been able to film some of the behind-the-scenes work involved in making the recordings. A series of short online films will be made available over the coming weeks. Watch this space for more details and further information.
Click here to find out more about the Listening Gallery project.
Click here to download recordings of music associated with Baroque 1620-1800: Style in the Age of Magnificence.