A-Wn Cod 5458 – Medieval Musical Scribbles from Vienna University

A-Wn Cod 5458 contains a copy of the Questiones by Johannes Buridanus (ca. 1300–after 1358, teacher at Paris University) on Aristotle’s Books on Physics. The manuscript at hand is dated to c.1370 and placed at Vienna University, possibly the artistic faculty due to its contents. I was made aware of this source because it includes an ink drawing of personnel from Neidhart songs which were popular in Vienna at that time. (On of the next blog entries will deal with said drawing in more detail, putting it in the context of late medieval Neidhart reception in Vienna.)

When asking for a scan of the Neidhart sketches, Friedrich Simader from the department of manuscripts at Vienna University asked me if I knew that there was notation on the outside of the book’s cover. After asking for a photograph—a wish which was kindly granted—I can now present to you the musical scribbles on the binding of A-Wn Cod 5458:

Musical jottings on the outside of the cover of A-Wn Cod 5458 (photo by Friedrich Simader)

Musical jottings on the outside of the cover of A-Wn Cod 5458 (photo by Friedrich Simader, with kind permission of the ©ÖNB)

Even though the notation is damaged and “weathered” by the handling of the book, it becomes immediately apparent that this is no parchment from a former musical manuscript re-used after maculation. The cover seems to have been used rather as a sort of notebook for textual and musical scribbles. The musical notation, stylistically typical for the 15th century, was written in a casual, off-handed manner on freehand drawn staves—possibly even before the parchment was used for the binding (because the staves and one of the notated lines seem to go over the edges of the book), and probably at least partly after the book was bound (because most of the notation is clearly limited to the front side of the cover). The notation is thus not only literally but also contextually connected to the book to which it was bound and can therefore be associated with the artistic faculty of the university. These facts combined with the knowledge of a Neidhart ink drawing within the codex as well as a surviving song collection which can be linked to a student of Vienna University in the 1420’s (Liebhard Eghenvelder) strengthen the notion of the presence of a musical repertoire of secular songs circulating at the university. (These connections will also be examined more detailed in on of the next blog entries.)

The musical notations

Turning back to the musical jottings at hand, I believe to be able to discern three separate and overlapping notations of musical lines which also employ different note shapes. While none of them feature any sign of clefs or accidentals, two of them portray a rhythmical set-up which is not limited but strongly linked to German monophonic song of the 15th century: a phenomenon which I tend to refer to as “reference rhythm” and which seems to call for the syllabic underlay of a German text (for more detail on this principle, which is used as a musical representation of an alternating verse metre, see the blog entry “ein tagweiß“). The most striking of these is one line of bulky black mensural notation which makes use of semibreves, minims and a breve:

One line of bulky, black mensural notation on the cover of A-Wn Cod 5458.

One line of bulky, black mensural notation on the cover of A-Wn Cod 5458.

Since this is the only line of music which carries on beyond the edge of the book, it seems that it was the first of the three to be notated, possibly written on the parchment before it was used for the binding. Despite the smudgy notes, the sometimes hard to identify minim stems and the missing clef, I believe that the following attempt at a transcription, for which I assumed a c4-clef, can at least give a rough impression of the intended melody behind the jottings:

Suggestion for a transcription of the line with bulky mensural notation featuring "reference rhythm"; assumed clef: c4.

Suggestion for a transcription of the line with bulky mensural notation featuring “reference rhythm”; assumed clef: c4.

Even though there is no clear evidence to support it, I would like to suggest that the next layer of notation which was added to the parchment comprises the shortest melodic fragment of the source: It fills the available space below the line of bulky, black mensural notation, makes use of a new, separate system of 5 lines, stays well within the limits of the cover and consists of white semibreves:

One line of white or hollow semibreves, difficult to make out under the more prominent tertiary notation.

One line of white or hollow semibreves, difficult to make out under the more prominent tertiary notation.

It is apparent that these white semibreves do not carry rhythmical values but are merely used as puncta to notate a melodic line. When assuming a c4-clef the following tenor-like melody emerges:

White semibreves used as "puncta" to notate a melodic line.

White semibreves used as “puncta” to notate a melodic line.

The most substantial of the three notations appears to have been added last, since it was written “around” the line of bulky black notation and across the line of white notation. Like the white notation it stays clear of the book’s outer edges. It begins in a system which was added just above and so close to the line with bulky notation that the systems almost merge:

Third notation, using "reference rhythm".

Third notation, using “reference rhythm”.

The notation conveys an almost complete melody, albeit in a patchy, incoherent manner. It seems to be a sketch—some parts of it appearing as if the notator had to double back and try again, so that bits of the melody actually musically overlap. The note shapes are typical to semi-mensural notations of monophonic songs, and again the “reference rhythm” is the most striking rhythmical feature. The melodic structure is very reminiscent of repertoires similar to the monophonic œuvre of Oswald von Wolkenstein or the semi-mensurally notated Neidhart melodies in the Eghenvelder Liedersammlung from the same era—both of which also tend to employ “reference rhythm”. The following transcription, which yet again is based on the assumption of a c4-clef, includes a rough musical analysis of the melody’s form-parts:

The third layer of musical notation, featuring "reference rhythm".

The third layer of musical notation, featuring “reference rhythm”. Uri Smilansky suggested that this melody might have been intended as a canon. It works well for about one line of music, after that adjustments would have to be made. Since the surviving notation is rudimentary and has an in-built “grey-zone” I do not want to rule this possibility out, especially since canons and rounds in the Dorian mode were very popular with German composers of the era (see Monk of Salzburg and Oswald von Wolkenstein).

The repetition of musical line b might have been either a second attempt at that line by the notator or a musical repetition integral to the melody and thus intentional. The repeated notation of the cadence of line b (marked green in the transcription), however, suggests the former.

When considering the layout of the notation systems, it seems that the first three were drawn freehand and successively from top to bottom: The downward slant of the lines to the right is increasing with every line, suggesting that the writer had to accomodate to the curvature of the lines he drew immediately before. The fourth and last system was added with some space and is the most regular. The following illustration emphasizes the  systems and is colour-coded according to the layers of notation:

    The four notation systems on the cover of A-Wn Cod 5458: red system with first layer of bulky black notation, blue system with second layer of white semibreves, green & blue system with third layer of semi-mensural notation.

The four notation systems on the cover of A-Wn Cod 5458: red system with first layer of bulky black notation, blue system with second layer of white semibreves, green & blue systems with third layer of semi-mensural notation.

So far I could neither identify nor attribute any of the jottings, discussed above, but maybe a concordance or cognate will soon turn up. This source will most certainly be a candidate for “Marc’s Milk Carton“. The other, textual scribbles might also hold some interesting information. Up to now I was not able to give a safe reading for any of these heavily bleached out annotations.

Marc Lewon

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