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Music of the Monks

Two leather-bound books of religious chants, estimated to be 500 years old, were discovered in a UNH storage facility last year by a graduate student who was just curious to see what was there.

Amanda Nelson '99, who was working at Dimond Library while studying for her master's in history, had gone to the storage building to look for some items for the University Museum. "I had never been in the library storage area before, so I started wandering around, seeing what was there," she says. "I happened to notice some big, leather-bound books, four inches thick with metal hinges on the ends. They looked interesting, so I lifted the cover of one and saw that it was a music book. The thing that piqued my interest was that it was an old style of writing music."

As an undergraduate, Nelson had taken a course in Renaissance music with associate professor Peter Urquhart, and she recognized the four-line musical staff used in the old books. After doing some research in reference books, she realized that the two volumes of Latin chants could date from the 16th century or even earlier. She called Urquhart and asked him to take a look at them. "I was dubious at first," Urquhart recalls. "I thought they might be 17th-century copies of earlier books." He consulted with Tom Kelly, a medieval chant scholar at Harvard University, who thought the books were probably compiled in the late 15th century. Graduate students in Urquhart's music bibliography class later investigated watermarks on the books' pages and found that the paper was produced by companies located in and around Paris, France, around 1480 or 1490.

Urquhart believes that the two volumes are a matched set compiled for use in a church or monastery in France or Germany. Both contain chants connected to monastic services, arranged to follow the traditional church year. The books would have sat on a music stand, and the monks would have gathered around to sing, with one of them turning the pages. "These books were used every day," Nelson observes. "You can see where the pages have been repaired and where they are worn and discolored from turning."

University Librarian Claudia Morner says that the books were donated to UNH in 1969. "We knew they were here, but we didn't know exactly what they were. Without someone like Amanda, who knew what she was looking at when she first opened them, several more years might have passed while they lay on a shelf."

"I did my dissertation on music of the 15th and 16th centuries," Urquhart says. "I would go to great lengths to get into libraries and archives in Europe to see books like these. I never expected to find two of them outside the backdoor of the music department. To find them here in our library is astonishing."

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