Early Western Music Research

In my final semester at Tufts University, I had the privilege to conduct primary historical research of a medieval musical text. The university library maintains a collection of ancient books including the Breviary for the Night Office, a medieval catholic liturgical book containing chants and some early sheet music. Reading through this brief selection of music and attempting to parse and translate the accompanying chant comprised the bulk of my research. This page contains a summary of my findings.

A picture of the book

The Breviary

No exact date or location of origin is known for this Breviary for the Night Office. The script and form of music notation as I describe in more detail below suggest it is of late twelfth to early thirteenth century western German origin.

The Divine Office, or Liturgy of the Hours, is the set of prayers that mark each time during the day performed by officials of the Catholic Church. It consists of psalms and hymns, as well as readings and antiphons. Together with the weekly Mass, it contains all of the prayers for standard Catholic practice. The liturgical books that contain all the texts and music for the Divine Office are called the breviary. In addition to psalms and hymns, the breviary contains chants sung before and after a psalm called antiphons. The breviary was a common book form across catholic Europe.

The Night Office is the part of the Divine Office that occurs at night, with specific prayers and texts called matins that are recited at 9pm, midnight, or 3am. This book contains prayers and hymns for the Night Office.

An excerpt from the breviary for the night office

The paste-downs on the inside cover of the book contain chants from the same Antiphonary, with the front paste-down containing chants for Matins for Thursday and Friday of Ordinary Time and the back pasted-won containing chants for Matins for Septuagesima. These chants are set to music notated in Hufnagel neumes, a form of specifically German musical notation. The relatively unshaded character and the transitional Protogothic/Gothic character of the script point to a dating in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century for this book.

Hufnagel neumes, also called Gothic neumes, are a style of notation visible in late medieval manuscripts from Germany. There are named this way because of the way the standard neume figure resembles the shape of a horseshoe nail. Hufnagel neumes were used as late as the eighteenth century.

Diagram of Hufnagel neumes

With an understanding of Hufnagel neumes and a parsing of the Latin text, it is possible to compare this piece to others in different breviaries and antiphonaries. The front pastedown contains a collection of psalms and the back pastedown contains the story of Adam and Eve.

The front pastedown

The front pastedown contains an assortment of psalm excerpts from the Vulgate, a 4th century Latin translation of The Bible which later became the standard across Europe. The psalm excerpts share common themes of brief praises and exultations of God. The text in the pastedowns is very close to an exact match of psalms in the Vulgate as digitized and circulated by Bible Gateway. Unlike the book of Genesis, the original textual source for the [back pastedown][back-pastedown], the book of Psalms has considerable variance of location and inclusion of chapters and verses across versions. The English translations are therefore approximate and were made with the assistance of Google Translate.

Note that ‘Euouae’ is a Latin abbreviation representing a specific melodic cadence from the Gloria Patri doxology. It translates to “unto the ages of ages” and is not considered part of the individual psalm fragments.

A picture of the front pastedown with a typeset copy of the latin text overlaid

Latin (from Breviary) English (approximate) Source (Vulgate)
Exsultate deo adjutori nostro Rejoice, God will help us Psalm 80:2
Tu solus altissimus super omnem terram tuam You are the highest over all the land Psalm 96:9
Benedixisti domine terram tuam Lord, blessed your land Psalm 84:2
Benedictus dominus in aeternum Blessed Lord forever Psalm 88:53
Cantate domino et benedicite nomini ejus Sing unto the Lord, bless his name Psalm 95:2
Confitebor tibi, Domine Deus meus, in toto corde meo, et glorificabo nomen tuum in aeternum: O Lord my God, with all my heart, and I will praise your name forever; Psalm 85:12
quia misericordia tua magna est super me, et eruisti animam meam ex inferno inferiori you took great pity on me and delivered my life from the underworld Psalm 85:13

A picture of the first page with a typeset copy of the latin text overlaid

Latin (from Breviary) English (approximate) Source (Vulgate)
Gaudebunt labia mea cum cantavero tibi et anima mea quam redemisti domine My lips will sing with you and my soul redeemed Psalm 70:23
Sed et lingua mea meditabitur justitiam tuam tota die laudem tuam And my tongue will extol your praise all day Psalm 70:24
Tibi soli peccavi domine miserere mei I have sinned. Lord have mercy on me Psalm 50:6
Domine refugium tu factus es nobis Lord, you have been our refuge Psalm 89:1
In matutinis domine meditabor in te In the morning Lord is my trust Psalm 62:7

The back pastedown

This text from the back pastedown tells the story of Genesis 2:20-23 and Genesis 3:8. It is unclear from which edition of the Bible this text is sourced. It is in Latin, but does not match corresponding verses in the Vulgate, a 4th century Latin translation of The Bible which later became the standard across Europe. Currently circulated digitized resources find this exact text only as chants in other breviaries and antiphonaries.

A picture of the back pastedown with a typeset copy of the latin text overlaid

Latin (from Breviary) English (King James Version)
Adae vero non inveniebatur adjutor similis ejus dixit vero deus but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him
Immisit dominus soporem in adam et tulit unam de costis ejus et aedificavit costam quam tulerat de Adam in mulierem And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.
et adduxit eam ad adam ut videret quid vocaret eam et vocavit nomen ejus Virago quia de viro suo sumpta est And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.
Dum deambularet dominus in paradysum ad auram post meridiem clamavit et dixit adam ubi es audivi domine vocem tuam et abscondi me And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden.

Additional thoughts

While each individual chant can be found in other sources, there does not appear to be another book with all of the same chants. Most of the chants found in this breviary can be found with limited changes to the text in the mid-sixteenth century Salzinnes Antiphonal, made by nuns in an abbey outside of Namur (modern day Belgium). This fits in line geographically with the Hufnagel neumes, which suggests that these two books were closely related and of the same or similar traditions. The Salzinnes Antiphonal is now located at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada and has been digitized.

Further research can be done into a finer-toothed comparison of the neumes to which the text is set. So far, the comparisons of this Breviary for the Night Office and other sources including the Salzinnes Antiphonal is primarily based on the text and not on the neumes themselves. The psalms can potentially be matched up with more standardized and translatable versions of The Bible and potentially a stronger pattern between them can emerge. Additionally, only around half of the back pastedown was translated and analyzed here. The other half likely contains earlier parts of Genesis 2, but may contain something else entirely.


Amstutz, Renate. Ludus De Decem Virginibus: Recovery of the Sung Liturgical Core of the Thuringian Zehnjungfrauenspiel, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2002, p. 11.

Burkholder, J. Peter, et al. A History of Western Music. W. W. Norton & Company, 2014.

Hiley, David. “Hufnagel.” Grove Music Online, Oxford, 2001, www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/

Huglo, Michael. “Breviary.” Grove Music Online, Oxford, 2001, www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/97

Steiner, Ruth. “Matins.” Grove Music Online, Oxford, 2001, www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093

This research was guided by Dr. Melinda Latour and builds upon prior research by fellow Tufts undergraduate students George Behrakis, Max Luo, and Vanessa Zighelboim.

     © Chris Hinstorff 2020