Manuscripts illuminate music

December 04, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

"Music in Manuscripts," the latest in the Walters Art Gallery's series of manuscript shows, has a problem: Part of it was obviously aimed at people in the field, while the rest will win a broader audience. Fortunately, there's enough of the rest.

Timed to coincide with last month's meeting in Baltimore of the American Musicological Society, the show opens with books related to the development of musical theory and notation. Not only are some of these examples less than visually riveting, but the accompanying labels leave the musically illiterate (such as yours truly) at a loss.

"The first column on the left of the woodcut gives the Greek names for the musical pitches," reads the label of one illustration. "The second shows the Pythagorean ratios of the pitches to one another. The third gives the Greek letter or symbol which was used for each pitch. In the last column, Gafurius links Greek theory to the seven hexachords (six-note scale patterns), the basis of medieval music." Yes, well, uh.

The very titles of some of these examples -- "Beneventan Notation for the Mass" or "Neumes on a Four-Line Staff," for instance -- while they might be music to the ears of a musicologist, leave the music-ignorant somewhat nonplused.

On the other hand, many of these manuscripts are gems to look at. The musical notation itself can be handsome, the margins are at times embellished elaborately and even humorously, and about half the 30 examples in the exhibit show people with musical instruments that were in use in medieval times. This is the enjoyable part of the show.

An illustration of the wedding of St. Cecilia, from the magnificent Beaupre Antiphonary of 1290, shows the saint (the patron saint of musicians, by the way) being entertained at dinner by musicians playing a fiddle, a psaltery (something like a zither) and a portative (we would say portable) organ that you played with one hand while the other worked the bellows (no wonder it didn't last).

Another illustration shows a shawm, a forerunner of the oboe, and a trumscheit, a forerunner of the double bass, which could be played with either end up. Elsewhere, King David tunes his harp and plays the bells; the nativity of Jesus is announced to shepherds dancing to bagpipe music; a horse and a donkey play two instruments each (you don't see much of that any more); and in a Renaissance manuscript of 1524, musicians playing the clavichord and the lute serenade two lovers.

If music be the food of love, play on.

Ancient music

What: "Music in Manuscripts"

Where: The Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St.

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays (Thursdays until 8 p.m.), 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Jan. 1

Admission: $6 adults, $4 seniors, $3 students, 18 and under free

Call: (410) 547-9000

Pub Date: 12/04/96

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