Peter Lefferts, professor of music history, recently co-published the book “The Dorset Rotulus: Contextualizing and Reconstructing the Early English Motet”. It explores the story of a motet, which is primarily a vocal musical composition that began in medieval times and continues today.
The book, published by Boydell Press in London, was researched and written by Lefferts; Margaret Bent, Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford; and Jared C. Hartt, associate professor of music theory at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music.
Lefferts received a Hixson-Lied Faculty Research / Creative Activity grant to support the professional indexing of the book, which was completed between 2017 and 2021.
Although the motet in English plays a vital role in the historical musical narrative of the early decades of the 1300s, it has often been overlooked in modern scholarship, largely due to its preservation in many almost entirely fragmentary sources. .
In 2017, substantial new fragments were discovered, originating from the Benedictine monastery of Abbotsbury, located above Chesil Beach on the Jurassic Coast of Dorset.
“They arrived at the homes of very wealthy people in the south of England. It’s a very private family, ”said Lefferts. “I have to visit there. They have one of those big English country houses that are very, very old and full of ‘stuff’. And what happened is that this music probably originated on the south coast of England in a very large Benedictine abbey, dedicated to St. Peter, and eventually came into their possession.
Lefferts said the motets date from around 1300-1320.
“Motets were an important type of music around the year 1300 – say in a range of 1200-1500. They have evolved over time, ”he said. “But what happened here are motets of English origin. They put in sacred Latin words. They are probably dated to around 1300, 1310, 1320. We are quite confident about this date range. Not much before and not much after.
Fast forward to the Reformation era in the early 1500s.
“If you remember Henri VIII, he got really angry with the Pope and broke with the Catholic Church, ”said Lefferts. “And one of the things he did then was confiscate all the monasteries in England and sell them to the wealthy in the neighborhood, who were told they had to demolish the monasteries and use the stone to rebuild them. other things It was around 1540.
“A family acquired this Abbey, demolished it and took away all its material, in particular all the documentation that the Abbey had to do with its property, which all became the property of this private family. Over the centuries, these documents from the abbey, which is about 20 miles from their home, have been somehow beaten up. So in the end, these pieces of music were found in 2016 during a very thorough cleaning at the bottom of a gigantic wooden chest, like a treasure chest.
The people who found her contacted their local historical society, and she eventually caught the attention of Bent, who in turn contacted Lefferts to study music.
Through the study of music, the team found links with Lefferts ‘1983 doctoral thesis. The thesis became Lefferts’ first book in 1986, “The Motet in England in the Fourteenth Century”.
“I didn’t think I would ever come back to this material. It brought me back to this material I was working on at the very beginning of my professional career, ”said Lefferts. “But we quickly realized something of the significance of this. This turns out to be really interesting and important for a number of reasons. “
Bent and Lefferts enlisted the help of Hartt, a music theorist whose professional work later studied medieval music.
“He had just started to shift his attention to English Motets,” said Lefferts. “So he was hired to help us rebuild complete pieces from very, very, weird fragments, and he did a lot of that. Almost like an original composition in the style of this one to bring these pieces together.
The new sources preserve significant portions of four large-scale motets in Latin text.
“We were able to put these pieces together with what we found and better understand previous findings,” said Lefferts. “We were suddenly able to have complete parts. So even though three of the four pieces were known before, they were terribly fragmented. It’s like finding a pot in a field that shattered into pieces, and we were able to put all the pieces together. Jared did much of the assembly of the missing music. But there was a fourth room, which was unique. And we can pretty much rebuild it in its entirety, and that tells us a lot about the context of the other three, which has proven to be remarkably valuable and insightful. “
The sheets of parchment were also interesting in themselves.
“There are two pieces of parchment that we found, and we realized that they go together, one below the other,” said Lefferts. “And there were only two musical staves missing between them, which meant that this music continued without stopping. That’s not how books work, so this music didn’t come out of a book. It had literally come out of a scroll or parchment. And it would have been a towering scroll that would have had the widest pages of any medieval music manuscript.
To create a context for motets on rollers, Lefferts set out to collect all existing music rolls from 1250 to 1600.
“The published scholarly literature that I was aware of reported about six of them, and I was able to find over 60 by browsing through the footnotes, indexes and lists that someone made here. or there, but no one had paid attention. I didn’t discover any other scrolls, but I was able to put this huge new list together and write a chapter on those scrolls and put it in a more elaborate context.
While thousands of scrolls have survived, Lefferts said very few of them were musical scrolls.
“The rolls were used for everyday lists, and my roll was probably done very carefully,” he said. “They knew exactly what they wanted to put on it and they knew how long it would take. These rolls can last a very long time and you can just add pieces of paper or parchment. It is very nicely done and elaborate.
Although he plans to retire at the end of the academic year, Lefferts’ next book will examine the sources of 14th century English music of all kinds.
“I am still not done with the scholarship,” he said. “That’s what I will do when I retire. But, you know, it’s fun. It’s interesting. And it’s good that there are people who are enthusiastic about it and encourage me to come back to an area that I left in the early 80s.