A leaf to sing from

A leaf from Antiphonarium sancte Romane ecclesie (a book giving the choral parts for services in the Roman church) printed by Petrus Liechtenstein in Venice in 1524 (363 x 254 mm)  

The book from which this leaf comes was intended for reading by several people at once – hence the large scale of the text and musical notation. Probably the book stood open on a tall lectern, before which a group of monks or other singers would stand to chant their way through through its pages.  Known as an Antiphonary, it contains the words and music for use in services.

This sort of work presented two challenges to the printer: to print in two colours and to print musical notation. By the date of this leaf, 1524, Venetian printers could do both these things, though music printing was a slow business and therefore expensive. The use of red and black text in service books, and black notes on red staves in the music, was a longstanding convention in the manuscript era, and printers followed suit.

To print in two colours it was necessary for each sheet of paper to go into the press twice, once to receive the red content and again for the black. Type for the whole page was carefully set up and by the use of a sort of stencil that fitted in front of each sheet as it was printed, only the red items would be printed. When all the sheets had been printed in red, the stencil was changed and minor adjustments made to the type itself before all the sheets were fed in again carefully aligned to receive their black content in the right places. A close look at my leaf shows that the black was indeed printed on top of the red, and this was usually the case.

Red ink was used the first time the sheet went into the press, and black ink the second time

For the music notation a special font had to be made where each piece of type carried the symbol for a note in a particular position or one of the other symbols needed. The four-line stave printed in red was made up of a series of identical pieces of type laid side by side. Narrow gaps between some of these types can be seen on the printed page.

As music became more complex over the years, printing it by this ‘letterpress’ method became more and more difficult, and engraved printing plates were used instead. Close scrutiny of my Oxford Book of Carols, printed in 1956, shows, however, that the Oxford University Press was still printing hymn-tunes by letterpress at that date.

Larger choirs required larger music to sing from. This one, which I bought from a stall on the banks of the Seine in Paris, is not printed, but a carefully drawn manuscript in two colours on vellum. Its date is uncertain – possibly early 18th century. At last twenty people could chant from a leaf this size. An added advantage would be that only the leaf would need to be lit. The singers themselves would not need candles.

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