I Know It When I See It (i Think…)

November 9, 2023
I Know It When I See It (I Think…)

This story is part of an ongoing series of editorials in which HMML curators and catalogers examine how specific themes appear across HMML’s digital collections. On the theme of Music, Dr. Matthew Z. Heintzelman has this story from HMML’s Special Collections.

SJRB 00584
A musical woodcut in a liturgical text printed in 1525. Collection of Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota. (SJRB 00584)

I’m not a musicologist, but I am an avid fan of music from all times and from many places around the world. Whether it’s a symphony by Brahms or an album by Pink Floyd, whether a love song by Edith Piaf or a 13th-century German poet, whether the artist is Joni Mitchell or Palestrina—I’m all ears and heart. So, it saddens me that I know so little about the music to which I am listening. I can barely read modern musical notation, although I used to think that I knew what it looked like! Nevertheless, I take comfort in knowing that some of the world’s written musical heritage has been preserved through the efforts of HMML.

Music at HMML

Through its preservation initiatives, HMML has photographed music from many cultures and places worldwide. The Western collections with which I work are filled with thousands of manuscripts with musical notation from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern period. While some of this music is available digitally, the largest part was preserved on microfilm between 1965 and 2002. Extensive collections are available for study from Austria, Germany, Spain, Portugal, England, and elsewhere. The Malta collection is especially rich in music manuscripts and rare printings up to the 20th century.

While the collections in Central Europe include vast amounts of religious and liturgical music—such as antiphonaries, graduals, and processionals—there are also troves of secular music and music by famous composers from the Renaissance to the early 19th century. Among these concentrations of music are the Klein Collection at the University of Bonn (Germany), the Leibl Collection at the Archepiscopal Diocesan and Cathedral Library in Cologne (Germany), and the Musicus Collection at the Minorites Convent in Vienna (Austria).

Musical Notation

As an introduction to the musical notation that one might find in these collections, I would like to share a few examples from the rare books and manuscripts in HMML’s Special Collections, which include items owned by HMML and by Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. These collections include music in Western manuscripts and early printed books, primarily in Latin, although some are in vernacular European languages.

Much of the communal religious ritual or liturgy celebrated by monastic communities over the past two millennia has incorporated music. Through teaching and through the copying of books, such communities could help maintain continuity in their practices, both across time and geography. The use of musical notation also provided a level of continuity for the way that the various chants, antiphons, and other liturgical elements were sung. Here are a few ways that music has come down to us.

  • HMML 00656

    The earliest example of musical notation in the collections owned by HMML is HMML 00656, an 11th-century liturgical fragment removed from a book binding.

    The “notes” take the form of squiggles called neumes, which indicate the relative pitch for a sung syllable. The notes are not on staff lines but appear to float above the text. The text in the lower-left section is from the Introit to the Mass for the Dead: “Requiem eternam dona eis domine…” (Eternal rest grant unto them, Lord…).

    HMML 00656 HMML 00656
  • AARB 00174 AARB 00174

    AARB 00174

    Notation without staff lines appears again, this time in the Arca Artium collection of Saint John’s University. This Missal (AARB 00174), printed in Venice in 1493, contains neumes as small red marks over the text, added by hand to adapt the book to local use. The addition of the neumes makes this copy of a printed work different from the other copies of the same 1493 edition.

  • SJRB 00002

    As we can see in this early 14th-century Gradual (SJRB 00002), by the late Middle Ages staff lines (in groups of four lines, not five) had become common in manuscripts. This form of notation, with square or diamond-shaped notes continued into the Early Modern era in Europe. One of the joys of this particular manuscript is the appearance of numerous faces within the larger initials.

    SJRB 00002 SJRB 00002
  • SJRB 00003 SJRB 00003

    SJRB 00003

    Perhaps from the 16th century, SJRB 00003 is a very large Spanish antiphonary. Intended for use by an entire choir, the book is about 30 inches tall!

  • AARB 00004

    Processionals were usually smaller books, to make them easier to carry individually. This Dominican processional (AARB 00004) is from the early 16th-century and starts with a hymn for Palm Sunday.

    AARB 00004 AARB 00004
  • AARB 00039 AARB 00039

    AARB 00039

    This choir book (AARB 00039), perhaps from the 18th century, uses square notation that was made with the help of stencils. Here we see the Mass for the Dead introduced by a skeleton.

  • SJRB 00584

    A variant of the square-notation was the so-called Gothic or “Hufnagel” notation, common in late medieval and Early Modern Germany. Its name (“hoof nails”) stems from the marks’ similarity to the nails used for horseshoes. SJRB 00584, a printed pamphlet on the Eucharist from the early years of the Protestant Reformation (1525), demonstrates these oddly shaped notes.

    SJRB 00584 SJRB 00584
  • AARB 00001 AARB 00001

    AARB 00001

    Another example of Hufnagel notation in a Latin manuscript copied in Germany in 1587. This liturgical book (AARB 00001) contains responses and antiphons for the Divine Office.

  • HMML 00076

    One of the shortcomings of neumes and square notation was the lack of any indication for the duration or length of the notes. In the later Middle Ages and during the Renaissance, a new form of notation provided some indication of this length by introducing different types of notes, some of which are hollow. The cover of HMML 00076 demonstrates this “mensural” notation. Sadly, the original manuscript of music from which this derives was cut up and used as binding waste. Today these notes cover a volume of business and legal records, completely unrelated to the music on the outside.

    HMML 00076 HMML 00076
  • Vesperal Vesperal


    Lastly, we have a manuscript produced in North America. In 1864 and 1865, at the height of the Civil War in the United States, a 21-year-old Benedictine novice in Pennsylvania was preparing for life in a monastery. Alexius Edelbrock (1843–1908) needed his own copy of the Vesperal (a collection of prayer and song for Vespers) to participate in the liturgical life of his community. Over the course of a few months, he copied the text, complete with musical notation on four-line staves. Edelbrock later served as the second abbot of Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota (1875–1889). Even in 19th-century United States, the monastic copying of musical manuscripts continued!


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