Thursday, July 7, 2011

Codex Calixtinus Stolen!

One of the most priceless manuscripts of music history has been reported missing in Santiago, Spain.  The Codex Calixtinus, a guidebook for pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compostela, a major pilgrimmage destination in the Middle Ages, contains some of the earliest notated music in history. It is one of the first sources of music for more than one simultaneous voice (polyphony).  It is a one-of-a-kind document from the age when books were all hand-copied on parchment (like thin leather) and extremely expensive even then.  This book has been preserved for centuries because from the beginning (around the year 1150), its caretakers understood its importance.  It was kept in the Cathedral Library in a special room... until today.

The book contains sermons and a Mass for Saint James ("Santiago" in Spanish), whose feast day is at the end of July.  Annual pilgrimmages culminated with this Mass.  The music contained in the book would have been sung at the Mass and other Christian observances during this period. 

The Codex Calixtinus is also known for its miniatures, illustrations of the text.  You can see an example in the BBC news article here.

The Music Collection has several compact discs that contain this precious and ethereal-sounding music:
Librarians everywhere carry a dual duty to preserve sources of information as well as share them.  Fortunately, scholars have had access to this wonderful resource and have been able to make its music available to performers and historians.  The Music Collection has a performance edition of the Mass for St. James, a highlight of the annual pilgrimmage.  The edition also has written commentary explaining the music and its significance.

A little vocabulary:
  • "Codex" is Latin for "book"
  • "Manuscript" means hand-written
  • "Performance edition" is sheet music in modern notation (vs. original Gregorian chant notation)
  • "Feast day" is the day set aside in the Catholic Church's calendar to commemorate a special person or event in Church history
  • "miniature" means any painted or drawn illustration in a medieval manuscript.  Even when they take up a full page they are still called "miniatures."

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