Music from choirbook leaves

'Missus est Gabriel', leaf from a choirbook, Germany or northern Netherlands, about 1250. Museum no. 1519

'Missus est Gabriel', leaf from a choirbook, Germany or northern Netherlands, about 1250. Museum no. 1519

These three pieces of music are examples of Gregorian chant, music traditionally sung by choirs in convents and monasteries. Gregorian chant accompanied the celebration of Mass and other services in the Christian church. Chant originated in monastic life where the singing of the 'Divine Service' seven times a day was required of those following the Rule of St. Benedict. Gregorian Chant has a long history and although it has been subject to many changes and reforms over the centuries it remains in use for worship today.

The words and notation for these chants are written on beautifully illuminated manuscript leaves in the V&A's collection. They come from a collection of loose leaves, cut out of their manuscripts, bought by the V&A in the 19th century in order to provide source materials for design students.

Two pages were once part of the same choirbook, and the third is from a separate choirbook, both made in northern Europe in around 1250. The pages contain antiphons: the verses or sentences sung by a monastic choir. The monks listened to a reading from the Bible and then responded to it with a chant.  This helped them to consider more deeply the reading they had heard

The recordings were made by the Royal College of Music especially for the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries thanks to an award from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.


Missus est Gabriel (The Angel Gabriel was Sent)

The Latin words of Missus est Gabriel words relate to Advent. The miniature on the choirbook page shows the Annunciation, the appearance of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary.

Download: mp3 | ogg View transcript


Domine ne in ira tua (Lord reprove me not in your anger)

The Latin words of Domine ne in ira tua relate to a Psalm. The monks listened to a reading from the Psalm and then responded to it with a chant. The miniature shows an image of Christ in Majesty above a praying monk.

Download: mp3 | ogg View transcript


Laudate Dominum (Praise the Lord)

The choirbook page bears the initial R. Professionally made books used such decorative initials to signal the main divisions of a text or, as in this case, music. The initials were added either by the scribe or by a specialist, in spaces that the scribe left blank. The important initials might be historiated (that is, with a figurative picture, istoire being the term for story) or decorated. The lesser initials were made of coloured letters on coloured or gold grounds, often with flourishing in ink of a contrasting colour. Spirals of white stems with leafy sprouts form the basis of the ornament on this fragment. The curved elements of the letter shape represent dragons' wings. Spiralling stems of this kind were frequently associated with a dragon, a decorative device used throughout Europe.

Download: mp3 | ogg View transcript
'Domine ne in ira tua', leaf from a choirbook, Germany or northern Netherlands, about 1250. Museum no. 1517

'Domine ne in ira tua', leaf from a choirbook, Germany or northern Netherlands, about 1250. Museum no. 1517

'Laudate Dominum', leaf from a choirbook, Germany, about 1250. Museum no. 244.2

'Laudate Dominum', leaf from a choirbook, Germany, about 1250. Museum no. 244.2


Video: Music from Choirbook Leaves

In this video Rowan Watson of the National Art Library and Glyn Davies, a V&A curator, discuss the manuscript leaves, while Jennifer Smith and Allegra Giagu from the Royal College of Music talk about recording the music.

View transcript of video

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