Jump to navigation

V&A logo

V&A blogs

Medieval and Renaissance: Past, Present and Future

RSS web feed image

Archive for the 'Music' Category

Audio and Technology in the Galleries

Monday, January 24th, 2011

By Glyn Davies

Medieval Mass audio

I remember that when I started working in museums in the late 1990s, computer terminals and audio points were just starting to become common sights in gallery displays. Often, there was a film running on a loop on a television screen, or there was a somewhat clunky computer supplying limited information. The question of whether or not to include tools like this within displays was extremely divisive, with many curators and visitors bitterly opposed to the idea, on the quite reasonable grounds that they distracted from the wonderful objects on show, and that they were ugly.

When the V&A opened its British Galleries in 2000, it was the first major suite in the Museum to make extensive use of such tools. The experience offered in the British Galleries was, for me at least, a good one; we’d taken the trouble to provide the technology in ways that were particularly useful, informative, or stimulating. A good example is the demonstration of William Burges’s wash-stand, an object that for conservation reasons can’t be regularly used, but for which a film was made, demonstrating the elegant and clever means by which water was dispensed into the wash bowl, and then emptied out into a cistern. If you’re interested in Burges’s washstand, then follow this link: http://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/furniture/videos/washstand/modem.html

For the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries, we followed the same path. The aim was to keep the quality of the content high, but to make sure that the means of delivery was discreet and did not in any way detract from the beauty of the objects we were displaying. We thought very carefully about the placement of every screen - close enough to have an obvious relationship with the relevant object, but not so close as to overwhelm it. However, we were very aware that technology was developing faster than we could keep pace with it.

In the first year of our planning, 2002, I remember being shown what the Getty Museum in Los Angeles was developing for their galleries - a portable mini-computer that visitors borrowed from the Entrance Desk, which would provide you with information and films about selected objects in the collection. At the time, I thought this was hugely ambitious, and quite futuristic!

V&A visitorsOf course, by the time our galleries opened in 2010, there had been a revolution in the amount of computing power being carried around in many of our visitors’ pockets. When I first watched Steve Jobs’s launch presentation of the iPhone, it was obvious that this device was going to revolutionise the way people lived their lives. And already since then, visitors now expect to be able to use WiFi to go online in the Museum, and to be able to access more and more information about the collections on the internet.

Our online output these days is starting to resemble that of a small tv company, with the Museum’s own video ‘channel’, and films often presented by well-known figures like Howard Goodall or David Dimbleby. As far as the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries go, we were aware enough of the direction in which things were moving to make sure that all the gallery films, audios and computer interactives were made available on our website as well as within the Museum.

Which brings me to my point - over the last couple of months, we’ve been planning a new step towards our provision of information using technology. In the next few weeks, the Museum will launch an App for iPhone, iPad and Android phones, specifically about the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries. Users will have access to a series of highlight objects with text and photos, the text and photos from the introduction to the accompanying book, and a series of audios including tours of the galleries. I’m particularly excited about the tours, because if you’re anything like me, then you’ll know that it can be very hard to absorb a lot of information via text panels in museums. On the other hand, if you’re shown around by somebody who knows the objects well, it’s always a more vital and stimulating experience. I do a lot of tours of the spaces, but by offering one of my tours this way, far more people will be able to benefit. We’ll also be able to keep updating the content (offering new tours, for example) over time.

Of course, we can’t expect our visitors to come armed with an iPhone. That’s why labels and wall panels will never be replaced in museums. But many visitors do own these devices, and increasingly, we’ll be able to offer them great ways of improving the experience of their visit. It also means that we don’t have to loan out devices, that there is no added clutter within the galleries, and that visitors are more in control of their own visit. All of which have to be good things!

It would be great to know about other innovative museum interpretation you’ve come across. Feel free to post below…

What Makes a Renaissance Ball Swing?

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010

By Glyn Davies

Renaissance Ball at the V&A, Friday 29th January 2010. Photograph by Peter Kelleher.Although it’s now a while since the event happened, I couldn’t resist posting a blog entry on the Renaissance Ball that the V&A hosted in the new Medieval & Renaissance Galleries in late January. As you can see from the photos posted here, the guests’ amazing costumes contributed in no small measure to what was a hugely successful event - although their interpretation of Renaissance clothes was broad to say the least! Rather than give you my own opinions about the ball, I’ve asked my friend and colleague Melissa Hamnett, a curator in the Sculpture Department, who was one of the organisers, to tell you about it instead. So, over to you, Melissa!

‘On January 29, over 5,000 people flocked to the V&A’s Friday Late to strut their stuff at a special Renaissance masked ball to celebrate the opening of the new galleries. In collaboration with the Last Tuesday Society, the V&A put on a wide programme of workshops, performances and readings drawing on the masked tradition of the Commedia dell’Arte.

Elaborate attire was the order of the day as costume designers from Wimbledon College of Art donned contemporary clothes for their production of Monteverdi’s opera, L’Orfeo, while members of the public arrived in fantastical masks and period dress to revel in lute-playing and mask-making workshop amongst others.Renaissance Ball at the V&A, Friday 29th January 2010. Photograph by Peter Kelleher.The Monteverdi Choir and the Glydebourne Opera Company performed madrigals and arias by Tallis and Pucell from the balcony in the Renaissance City gallery, while story-telling, silhouette-making and shadow-puppetry took place elsewhere. During a tour of the medieval galleries, many heard the historian Dan Cruickshank embellish on objects such as chalices and chasubles, to sarcophagi and stemmata, while four graduates of the London Contemporary Dance School produced a specially commissioned piece in the Raphael Cartoon Courts. The evening’s events saw all ages delve into the fun in what proved to be one of the most successful Friday Lates to date.’

Of course, what Melissa hasn’t told you is the sheer amount of work involved in planning an event of this sort. She and other team members were working on it during the period in which the Galleries were being installed, and taking part in the installation at the same time. One of the interesting things that’s struck me having seen a number of parties and events happening within the new galleries is how much they lend themselves to this slightly more theatrical, and less didactic, way of experiencing them. This may have something to do with the largest space, ‘The Renaissance City 1350-1600′ in particular. This gallery was intended to provide a broader context for the monumental sculpture and architecture displayed within it by evoking the feel of renaissance interior and exterior spaces. It’s this broadly evocative approach, which means that parts of the gallery feel like a courtyard, or an Italian piazza space, that lends itself to these kinds of events. But speaking as a medievalist, it seems a shame for the renaissance to have all the fun. Maybe we should plan an event for the Feast of Fools?

A Missal from the Abbey of Saint Denis, Paris

Monday, January 4th, 2010

By Stuart Frost

Page from a missal from the abbey of Saint-Denis, 1350. Museum no. MSL/1891/1346.The pages that illustrate this blog entry are from a magnificent missal in the V&A’s collections, one of the finest surviving examples of a fourteenth century Gothic manuscript. A missal is a book which contains all the texts and music needed by a priest to celebrate Mass. This particular missal was made for use at one of the altars in the royal abbey of St Denis, Paris. The book is displayed in Room 9 The Rise of Gothic 1200-1350.

Visitors to the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries will be able to see manuscript but also to explore a larger selection of openings from the book through a touch-screen interactive placed nearby. In addition, for the first time visitors will also be able to hear a recording of one of the chants preserved in the musical notation written on the missal’s pages. 

The missal waA missal from Saint Denis, Paris. MSL/1891/1346 393vs commissioned for the abbey of St Denis and because it was used there it includes specific references to both the abbey and its patron saint, Saint Denis. Saint Denis is the patron saint of France. He was believed to have been sent to Gaul to convert pagans to Christianity in the third century. Although St Denis preached initially with great success he was imprisoned and eventually beheaded. His martydom is depicted in the illumination depicted in the photographs that heads this blog entry.

The strong connection between the manuscript and Saint Denis dictated that if we were to record only one piece from the missal it should ideally be a piece that related to the abbey or its name saint. Staff, students and professional singers from the Royal College of Music recently recorded Salve Pater Dyonisi (Hail Father Denis). the notation and words for which can be seen in the images to the left and below.  This piece would have been performed on the Feast Day of Saint Denis. Salve Pater Dyonisi comprises seven verses which praise St Denis and two other saints who were martyred with him, Saint Rusticus and Saint Eleutherius. The words are sung in Latin to music that was adapted from pre-existing pieces to create a fresh work.

A missal from Saint Denis, Paris. MSL/1891/1346 394rA short film that introduces the missal and which documents the recording of Salve Pater Dyonisi has just been posted on Vimeo. If you’d like to see the film please click on the link provided below. The superlative artistic qualities of the missal are easy to appreciate but the recording of some of the music that its written upon its pages will hopefully give visitors a greater feel for how the manuscript was originally intended to be used. 

I’m delighted that visitors to the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries will be able to hear for the first time a piece of music that was originally performed in Saint Denis abbey around 1350. The recording will also be made available online. Watch this space for more information. Happy New Year to everyone!

Click here to see the film about the Saint Denis Missal and the recording of Salve Pater Dyonisi on Vimeo.

Music from the leaf of a choirbook

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

By Stuart Frost

Leaf from a choirbook, about 1250, Germany or northern Netherlands.  Museum no. 1519I’ve chosen to illustrate this blog entry with a manuscript leaf that was orginally part of a choirbook made around 1250, probably in Germany. The leaf is decorated with an illuminated letter that depicts the Annunciation, the moment when the Angel Gabriel appears to the Virgin Mary and tells her that she will give birth to Christ. Click on the image for a larger picture and more information about the choirbook leaf.

The leaf also contains the musical notation and the Latin words for a piece of Gregorian chant, Missus est Gabriel or the Angel Gabriel was Sent. Thanks to the efforts of staff and students and the Royal College of Music visitors to the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries will be able to listen to a recording of this piece of music in the gallery where the choirbook leaf is displayed. The music will be delivered through headphones and an audio-point built into one of the gallery seats.

If you’d like to know more about the choirbook leaf and the recording of the piece of music I’ve provided a link below to a short film that we made to document the work. In the film curator V&A Rowan Watson explains why the V&A has a large collection of individual manuscript leaves, the female choir is shown rehearsing the piece of music and Jennifer Smith of the Royal College of Music explains the work involved in transcribing the notation from the original manuscript.

Recording peformances of medieval chant in a church, 17 June 2009. Photograph by Lorena Meana.Chants like Missus est Gabriel originated in monasteries where the singing of the Divine Service seven times a day was required of those following the Rule of St. Benedict. Gregorian chant accompanied the celebration of Mass and other services that took place throughout the liturgical year. 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 choirbook leaf will be displayed in Gallery 8 Faiths & Empires 300-1250 as part of a display about Great Chuches and Monasteries. The Medieval & Renaissance Galleries will open to the public on Wednesday 2nd December 2009. It is hard to believe that after so many years the project is almost finished.

Click here to see the film about the choirbook leaf and the recording of Missus est Gabriel on Vimeo. The recording of Missus est Gabriel will also made be available on the V&A’s website in due course.

Click here to find out more about the Listening Gallery project.

The Listening Gallery project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The Listening Gallery Part 4: Music for the harpsichord

Monday, November 9th, 2009

By Stuart Frost 

The Medieval & Renaissance Galleries will open to the public on Wednesday 2nd December 2009. As you might expect installation of the objects and displays is dominating the work of the project team at the moment and will continue to do so over the short period of time that remains.

For those of you who are keen to get an impression of what is going on behind the scenes I have posted some photographs on the Medieval & Renaissance Flickr site. I’ll add further photographs on a weekly basis. The easiest way to reach the Flickr site is by clicking on the image below.

Harpsichord by Giovanni Baffo, 1574, Venice. Museum no. 6007-1859From my own point of view most of my time over the last couple of weeks has been focussed on the final scripting and recording of over forty audio tracks. These will integrated with the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries via fourteen audio-points, small touch-screen computers with headphones located at fixed points throughout the displays. Most of the tracks will also be available online via the V&A’s website. The recording and post-production of over eighty-four pages of script is now complete which I have to say is something of a relief. I’ll focus on just one audio track here.

The richly decorated instrument that illustrates this blog entry is a harpsichord made in Venice in 1574 for a member of the wealthy Florentine Strozzi family. The keyboard will be part of Palace and Home, a display that focuses on the elite Renaissance interior and the activities that took place there. The decision to provide recordings alongside the harpsichord to give visitors a sense of what the instrument sounded like was one of the more straightforward ones.

The V&A’s harpsichord, made by Giovanni Baffo, is no longer in playable condition. The instrument was acquired by the V&A primarily because of the superlative quality of its wonderfully rich and elaborate decoration. However there is an early harpsichord in the Museum at the Royal College of Music that is in playable condition. Thanks to our collaboration with the Royal College we were able to obtain a number of recordings of tracks that were performed on this instrument by Giulia Nuti.

The piece of music that visitors to Gallery 62 will be able to listen to is called Passemezzo di nome antico and was written by Marco Facoli. Facoli was born in Venice where he flourished as a composer in the late 16th century. The musical notation for this piece of music, contemporary with the Baffo harpsichord, is preserved in a manuscript in the library of the Royal College of Music. It is exceptional for the period for such a long and complex piece of solo music written out at length in a manuscript to have survived.

There are several advantages to obtaining recordings of previously unrecorded tracks like Passemezzo. One of the most significant benefits is that the pieces of music can be matched very closely to the objects which they are being used to interpret. New recordings can also be made more widely and freely available via the V&A’s website without getting involved in complex and sometimes expensive licensing issues.

To find out more about the harpsichord made by Giovanni Baffo from curators James Yorke and Kirstin Kennedy, and to watch footage of the recording of Passemezzo at the Royal College of Music, click on the link to the short film provided below. If you have any questions or comments please do post them below and I’ll respond to them as soon as I can.

Click here to see the film about the Baffo harpsichord on Vimeo.

Click here to find out more about the Listening Gallery project.

The Listening Gallery project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The Listening Gallery Part 3: A Notation Knife

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

By Stuart Frost

I’ve written about The Listening Gallery project before. It  is a two-year collaboration between the Royal College of Music and the V&A. The project draws on recent research in music, art & design and technology. One of the aims of the project is to connect key objects in the V&A’s collections with recordings of music that help visitors understand both the objects, and the cultural contexts to which they belonged, more fully.Notation Knife, Museum no. 310-1903.

New and existing recordings of music were integrated into the V&A’s major Spring 2009 exhibition, Baroque 1620-1800: Style in the Age of Magnificence (4 April to 19 July 2009) as part of the first phase of the Listening Gallery. A series of over thirty new recordings have been made for the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries (opening 2 December 2009). The music will be available in the galleries and online via the V&A’s website. My colleagues, Peter Kelleher and Maike Zimmerman, very kindly agreed to film some of the work involved in producing the recordings. A series of short films are now complete and will be added to the website over the coming weeks. 

The first film focuses on a knife made around 1550, the blade of which is etched on both sides with musical notation. The flat blade indicates that the knife was probably used to serve or present slices of meat. The object has been the focus of a great deal of thorough research undertaken by Flora Denis who has investigated a number of key questions. Why was musical notation engraved on the blade? Was this music actually meant to be sung? How many other knives like this one survive and was the V&A’s knife part of a larger set? The notation on the knife was recently transcribed, rehearsed and recorded at the Royal College of Music. To watch the film and find out more about the knife, the research, the music and the Listening Gallery project please click on the link provided below.  

If there are any questions that you’d to ask, or comments that you’d like to make, please do post them below. 

Click here to see the film about the notation knife on Vimeo.

Click here to find out more about the Listening Gallery project. 

The Listening Gallery project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The Listening Gallery Part 2: Medieval to Baroque

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

By Stuart Frost

Performing medieval chant, 17 June 2009. Photograph by Lorena Meana.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.Page from a missal from the abbey of Saint-Denis, 1350. Museum no. MSL/1891/1346.

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. Performing medieval chant, 17 June 2009.Photograph by Lorena Meana.

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.

The Listening Gallery

Wednesday, May 14th, 2008

By Stuart Frost

I recently had some good news about a collaborative project that I’ve been working on with colleagues at the V&A and the Royal College of Music. In November 2007 the Royal College of Music applied to the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) for a grant that would allow the V&A to integrate high-quality recordings of medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music with the forthcoming permanent Medieval and Renaissance Galleries and the temporary Baroque exhibition.Detail from St Denis Missal

The application to the AHRC has been successful which is fantastic news. The project will last for two years and will enable us to connect objects in the V&A’s collections with recordings of music with which they have a strong relationship. The grant from the AHRC will enable us to provide visitors with a rich multi-sensory experience and to help us bring remote periods of European history to life.

There will be fourteen audio-points in the new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries. Visitors will be able to sit down, pick up a pair of headphones and to listen to a number of recordings. There are countless objects in the collection which have a strong connection with music.

The Museum has an important collection of musical instruments that includes Renaissance lutes and harpsichords.  Many objects feature representations of musical instruments that no longer survive. Others like the St Denis Missal feature musical notation that hasn’t been recorded before.  As part of the project a signficant number of new recordings will be made. In other cases existing recordings will be utilised. The music will also be made available via the V&A’s website for downloading.

Music was a central part of life in medieval and Renaissance Europe and this project will highlight to visitors just how significant music was. I find it incredibly exciting to think that visitors will be able to sit in a new gallery looking at a display of Gothic stained-glass whilst listening to recordings of the music which once filled the cathedrals where the glass was placed.  Rather than looking at the Baffo harpsicord which I’ve illustrated here, visitors will be able to hear recordings of the music which it would have been used to play. Click on the image to find out more about the object.

Harpsichord by Giovanni Baffo, 1574, Venice. Museum no. 6007-1859The idea for the project to integrate music with the displays was first raised late in 2006 by Flora Dennis and Giulia Nuti. I’m delighted that thanks to the efforts of a large number of people the application was submitted successfully. Giulia will play a central role in delivering the project. She is a very talented musician and if you click on the link below you’ll be able to hear some recordings that she made for the recent At Home in Renaissance Italy exhibition. I’ll use the blog to post updates as things progress.

Click here to listen to extracts of music recorded for At Home in Renaissance Italy

Click here to find out more about the Royal College of Music / V&A Listening Gallery project.