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Face the music of the past with the Alamire Foundation

Face the music of the past with the Alamire Foundation

Music is a powerful thing: it connects us to each other, to our culture, our language, our future, our present and our past.

8 minutes
20 December 2019

Music is a powerful thing: it connects us to each other, to our culture, our language, our future, our present and our past. Have you ever wondered which tunes your ancestors loved listening to? Or what they considered the soundtrack to their lives? Well, that is exactly what the Alamire Foundation is dedicated to examining. Relying on state-of-the-art technology, they lift the music from the 15th and 16th century-old parchment, thus working towards putting the Low Countries’ music (back) on the map. Doesn’t that sound like music to your ears?

KU Leuven Musicologists Will Change Your Tune about Our Musical History

The Alamire Foundation, the International Centre for the Study of Music in the Low Countries, was founded in 1991 as a co-operative association between KU Leuven’s Musicology Research Unit and the non-profit organisation Musica. Currently overseen by Bart Demuyt, Director of the Alamire Foundation and Senior Innovation Manager of Musical Heritage at KU Leuven’s Industrial Research Fund, its mission is to encourage and coordinate (international) systemic research into the musical history of our region from the Early Middle Ages until the beginning of the 19th century. Located at scenic Park Abbey, (Heverlee) Leuven, the Foundation took its name from the 16th century music copyist, composer, instrumentalist, mining engineer, merchant, diplomat and spy (!) for Henry VIII’s court Petrus Alamire (ca. 1470-1536).

Exquisite manuscripts

Alamire and his workshop produced the largest and one of the most important sets of sources of Renaissance music north of the Alps. Moreover, many of the manuscripts – containing hundreds of religious as well as secular works – were exquisitely decorated with beautiful miniatures, initials that were painted down to the smallest detail and gorgeous borders in the Ghent-Bruges style. According to David Burn, Professor of Musicology at KU Leuven, the manuscript corpus produced under his supervision made him “one of the central, most important sources of the musical heritage of the Low Countries.”

Alamire partiturenboek

In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Low Countries were considered Europe’s cultural Mecca. Our musicians became internationally renowned artists, and therefore much sought after by courts all over the Continent. At the time, the composers of multi-voiced music or polyphonists of the so-called Franco-Flemish school set the tone. Taking on a pioneering role, they inspired a style that would play an important role in the evolution towards Baroque music.

Alamire partiturenboek detail

Creating awareness

For this reason, research conducted by the Alamire Foundation focuses on that era, aiming to localise, catalogue, unlock and preserve as much of that musical heritage as possible, and most of all, to make more people aware of this significant part of our cultural history. What is especially interesting is that apart from simply collecting, studying and storing the music and manuscripts, the Foundation actually brings them to life. By listening to the age-old music being performed, we are invited to fully experience a part of history.

In order to ‘free’ the music from their centuries-old manuscripts, the Foundation established the mobile Alamire Digital Lab (ADL) and the innovative Alamire Sound Lab at St. Norbert’s Gate. The team at this state-of-the-art laboratory is dedicated to digitising musical heritage material using specialist equipment, including highly advanced lenses, lighting and high-resolution cameras. This way, these immensely valuable source materials can be captured in razor-sharp images, ready to be studied, performed and exhibited. In the Alamire Sound Labs practice-based research makes it possible to analyse the multi-layered compositions and to reconstruct the (lost) acoustics from the churches where the music was written for centuries ago.

Both the main ADL photographer, Dr. Lynda Sayce, and her assistants are musicologists and musicians, which guarantees the unique and delicate music sources are dealt with expertly throughout the digitisation process. Moreover, this also means the scholarly study of the manuscripts can begin during the digitisation process. Indeed, at the ADL, research and digitisation go hand in hand. To date, the ADL has produced more than 60,000 images. All those images are brought together in the data centre at the Alamire Foundation’s Centre of Excellence, the Library of Voices, allowing the researchers to create a contemporary collection of age-old music. Being digital, these images are no longer just accessible to the lucky few; here, anyone can get lost in digital images, and – soon enough – in sound recordings. Crucially, as you no longer need to manipulate the fragile manuscripts in order to scrutinise them, they can be better preserved.

Alamire onderzoekers

Mobile gateway to digitisation

Interestingly, the ADL and its equipment are completely mobile, meaning digitisation can take place in institutions where similar sources are kept located all over the world. One fascinating example of the lab’s mobile activities is the digitisation of the impressive corpus of music manuscripts held in the Vatican Library collections. Over the course of several months, the team produced approximately 13,500 digital images in situ, which can now be consulted the world over. Indeed, you will no longer need to go to the prestigious Vatican Library itself to see the wealth of illuminated music manuscript made in the Low Countries centuries ago.

Alamire lichtsetting partituur

But where are all those images stored? Well, the Alamire Foundation’s Integrated Database for Early Music (IDEM), also headquartered at St. Norbert’s Gate, makes the digital images accessible online, accompanied by additional supporting content. IDEM is absolutely unique when it comes to preserving the Low Countries’ cultural heritage, including sources – like the ones in the Vatican – that are kept abroad but are directly related to our region. International researchers and musicians alike can consult the multifaceted interdisciplinary database – containing both polyphonic music and Gregorian chant – for studying and performing the Vatican’s music, as well as other medieval and Renaissance music (up to the year 1600) in the Low Countries, free of charge.

Another venue of the Centre of Excellence is the House of Polyphony, located in the Maria Gate of Park Abbey. When it comes to the valorisation of its musical heritage, the House of Polyphony is one of the most important platforms in the world. Both a physical and virtual space, the House is created to be a centre for the dissemination of musical history. In other words, this is a unique place where the study of music and musical practice meet. In fact, the House of Polyphony houses its own growing collection of musical instruments, including several harpsichords, a set of medieval portatives, 3 original organs from the 18th, 19th and 20st centuries, fiddles and flutes, which are carefully tuned and looked after by a team of enthusiastic professional musicians.

Alamire gewelf

Music for the masses

In attempt to make visitors feel the same enthusiasm for the music of the past, the Alamire Foundation has taken a number of exciting initiatives. A particularly interesting example is Speculum Musurgica, a media installation by artist Dr. Rudi Knoops. With its heptagonal shape, ingenious mirror structures and sound projections, visitors are invited to take a physical tour of the multi-layered texture of the music, so as to experience the intricacy of polyphony by an audiovisual performance of the worldfamous Huelgas ensemble.

In 2017, the Salzinnes Antiphonal, an illuminated choir book, which originated from the Cistercian Abbey of Salzinnes on the outskirts of Namur, was the centrepiece of an exhibition in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax (Canada). The Antiphonal was entirely digitised by the ADL, and will be reproduced together with a study in a facsimile edition of the Leuven Library of Music in Facsimile (edited by David Burn and Bart Demuyt).

In their continuous effort to uncover ever more about our predecessors’ musical legacy, a number of fascinating research projects were set up under the auspices of the Alamire Foundation. Music is looked at under a microscope, so to speak, allowing the Foundation to fill in the gaps of our musical history. An incredible accomplishment of the Foundation is the work done on the so-called Leuven Chansonnier, a prominent part of Flemish heritage, which the Foundation tracked down in 2015. Although research is still ongoing, this unique songbook is believed to date back to 1475. The incredible booklet contains fifty songs (including twelve unique ones), most of them for three voices and written in French. The Leuven Chansonnier was digitised by the ADL, and is currently digitally available on IDEM for further research and valorisation. A truly unique piece, the songbook is one of the highlights in the Library of Voices.

Alamire onderzoeker lamp

Songs of sadness

The Cantors and Catafalques project focuses on the previously understudied role of music in death rituals in the late medieval and early modern periods (1300–1530) in two geographical areas, i.e. the Low Countries and Germany. The project entitled According to Antwerp, Reformed to Rome on the other hand, zooms in on how exactly Post-Tridentine (or produced after the Council of Trent, Italy) liturgies were established, expressed, and experienced through scrutinising overlooked musical evidence.

Alamire boekenzaal

After this brief journey into the Alamire Foundation and its achievements thus far, we can safely conclude that this Centre of Excellence takes the lead when it comes to the exploration of the Low Countries’ musical heritage. The marriage between state-of-the-art technology and the researchers’ passion for the music of yesteryear proves to be a successful one. The Foundation’s successful attempt to bridge the gap between music and scholarship can only make us look forward to its future discoveries.

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