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Old Hall manuscript

Image from the Old Hall Manuscript Choir-book

The Old Hall manuscript: 'Veni Sancte Spiritus'
British Library Add. MS 57950, ff.55v-56
Copyright © The British Library Board
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The 'Old Hall manuscript' is the most important source for our knowledge of early harmony in England, and comprises one of the oldest surviving collections of English part music.

The 'Old Hall manuscript' is made up mostly of settings of the Ordinary of the Mass, together with some antiphons and motets. The majority of the music has not survived elsewhere. The book is of incomparable value because it shows us an English repertory for which the names of individuals are given for the first time.

This collection of sacred music was compiled by a single scribe between about 1415 and 1421. The complexity and precision of the notation employed indicates a high degree of sophistication in the writer and the intended users of the book, as well as the composers. In the early 1420s blank leaves and inserted pages were used by a number of other writers to add pieces to the collection.

The manuscript identifies numerous English composers, including one 'Roy Henry', who is most likely to have been Henry V. Two of the motets may be associated with the Battle of Agincourt (1415) and another is one of the most celebrated works by John Dunstable (died 1453) whose music is considered to incarnate the spirit of the Renaissance in England.

The volume is arranged by sections devoted to particular parts of the Ordinary of the Mass, so that different settings of the Gloria, Sanctus, and so on are grouped together. Some are written in score, others in parts. The manuscript takes its name from a previous owner, St Edmund's College, Old Hall Green, Ware, in Hertfordshire.

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