Thursday, August 27, 2009

Forget the Da Vinci Code - this one is real!

I'm amazed to read about an ancient piece of music, discovered by chance on a carving at Stirling Castle in Scotland.

In 2004 a master carver called John Donaldson, now 62, was employed to copy the series of carved wooden portraits mounted in roundels on the ceiling of James V's bedroom in Stirling Castle.

. . .

Donaldson familiarised himself with the carvings as he took on the job. One roundel immediately stood out - number 20.

One of the finest in terms of craftsmanship, like other roundels it had a series of decorative cuts around the border.

What was unusual, though, was the particularly coherent order in which they were arranged.

But what really pricked his curiosity was the fact that the evidently capable carver seemed to have made a mistake.

'On the inner border, the craftsman seemed to have messed up,' says Donaldson. 'In a cone-and-petal relief, he had to crush in a petal in order to make the alternating border work.

'I thought it was strange that someone of this calibre would make a fundamental error such as that.

'Then the realisation dawned on me that the petal indicates the start of the code around the rim.'

When Donaldson wrote out the code, he noticed that, in what seemed to be nine separate phrases, one was repeated three times.

'That's when I thought that something was being communicated. It wasn't just a series of incoherent marks. It was something meaningful.'

Donaldson was instantly enthralled, but without any apparent means of breaking the code.

Over the next four years, as he gave talks about the copying project to visitors, he would make a point of asking if anyone might know what the code might mean.

. . .

The markings seemed destined to remain a mystery until, by an extraordinary fluke, Donaldson filled a spare hour one evening by watching a TV documentary about the medieval harp.

In the programme, Catrin Finch, the royal harpist, had a tutorial with a medieval specialist.

'He said: "Just remember, all string music in medieval time was written in ones and nothings - in binary."

'I leapt off the settee. Here was the answer. I realised we had some sort of clue to what was in this code.'

Donaldson contacted the harp specialist Paul Dooley, from Ireland, where there is a long tradition of the harp. He was curious to know how the marks might translate into music.

Dooley told him to think of the ones as a major chord and the zeros as a minor chord. Having no instrumental ability, Donaldson asked his son Gregor, who plays guitar and piano, to see if he could make head or tail of the code.

Within an hour, Gregor had recorded a guitar tune based on the binary code.

'I was amazed. It sounded just like I thought 16th century music would sound like.'

The other thing Dooley said was that the notation looked more Scottish than Irish - this despite the fact that there is no evidence for notation in Scotland back as far as the dates of the carvings.

So in January, Donaldson made contact with Barnaby Brown, a specialist in early Scottish music, who lectures at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Edinburgh. Brown was thrilled by what he saw.

'I had that seed of hope immediately,' he says. But he couldn't be sure about the marks' meaning until he'd spoken to experts in other fields.

'The Renaissance world is remote, enigmatic and very different to our own.

'I wanted to ask whether it could be something else I knew nothing about, such as a game or a dance or an allegory.'

So what was it that convinced Brown he might be looking at music?

The carvings were made in the reign of James V, who occupied the Scottish throne from 1512 to 1542, roughly coinciding with the reign of Henry VIII.

We know a great deal more about singing than instrumental playing from those decades. The choral music of the English Renaissance composers - Thomas Tallis, William Byrd and John Taverner - was all written down. Immensely sophisticated, their songs are still sung in churches all over the country today.

But from the written evidence, 16th-century instrumental musicians don't seem to have been in quite the same league.

This turns out to be quite untrue - they were just masters of improvisation who rarely wrote down their compositions.

According to a document recording the training of a 16th-century court musician in Wales, true mastery was equated with learning a wide variety of 'measures' - what we might nowadays interpret as chord sequences.

These were written in the same 'binary' code of ones and noughts as used in the Stirling carvings, and provided a basic outline around which the musician could then improvise.

'They played sophisticated music that they did not write down,' says Brown. 'They were probably much like jazz players playing fabulously complicated tricks that require great training and expertise.'

It sounds like a lost skill, but this week, a group of ten-year- olds from Allan's Primary School in Stirling visited the castle and used harps to perform their own version of the musical sequence carved into the King's Bedroom ceiling.

'Listening to the music for the first time was a really emotional experience,' says Donaldson, who last month finished the job of copying the carvings.

There's more at the link, including more pictures.

I'd love to hear that piece of music! It raises all sorts of questions. Who wrote it? Why was it preserved in a carving in the King's Bedroom? Who ordered it done? Why?

There's no word yet on whether a recording of the newly-discovered piece will be released. In the meantime, to give you an idea of the 'musical atmosphere' at Stirling Castle, here's a short video clip of medieval music being played in the Great Hall there.

What a fascinating discovery!


EDITED TO ADD: Thanks to a comment from Simon, I was able to find a recording of this music on the BBC Web site. Click here and scroll down to the end of the report - the link is in the sidebar. The harpist playing it is singing along in Gaelic. Thanks very much, Simon!


Simon said...

has a harpist playing the tune, though the journo talks over most of it.

Mikael said...

If medieval music strikes your fancy, have a listen to Swedish "medieval boyband" Patrask. Most of it is real medieval music or old folks songs from all over europe, some of it is made up in the same style, and when they play live, they'll sometimes do covers, which is great fun.

Some samples here:

Torrent with their first demo and a couple of full albums here:
(no this isn't really a pirate torrent, they put it up there themselves. It's linked from here: on their official site.)

They're really really good.

- A Fan.

Peter (NOGH) said...

Having a close friend who is Scottish, I'd bet that if one was to discover the original text it would be less than complimentary to the Scottish Crown.

Anonymous said...

" It raises all sorts of questions. Who wrote it? Why was it preserved in a carving in the King's Bedroom?"

Maybe it sounds like 16th century Barry White.


Anonymous said...

Hi - Bill Taylor the harpist played this piece recently in a concert and I'm working on a youtube video showing how the roundel relates to the music. Do have a look - the music and roundel animation starts about halfway through: