Glasgow Incunabula project update (13/6/14)

Two examples of music printing feature in this batch of incunabula. Early printers faced a considerable challenge in attempting to depict the notes (all to be placed accurately at varying heights!), symbols and staves of music. It  could, however, be achieved by using a number of techniques. The most usual way in early printed texts was to use moveable music type, but some printers also experimented with woodblocks and metal blocks.

early printed music

Gerson: Collectorium super Magnificat (Sp Coll BD9-c.8)

The 1473 edition of Jean Gerson’s commentary on the Magnificat  (Collectorium super Magnificat [Strassburg: Printer of the 1472 Aquinas ‘Summa’]) is said to be the first book to contain actual music in print. Here, the notes  ‘sol, la, mi, re, ut’ (as mentioned in the text, two line above) are shown by five black squares placed in a descending diagonal  row and preceded by the letter ‘f’ (representing an F clef). According to the BM catalogue, the notation in this book – which is not accompanied by any lines – appears to have been printed with a stamp; it has also been conjectured that the square notes were probably produced by reversing the type of a capital letter. It was evidently up to the user to add the staff by hand, and in some copies the whole space has apparently been left blank and unstamped.

early printed music

Bamberg Missal (Sp Coll BD9-b.2)

We featured two works on musical theory with music produced by woodblocks in an earlier incunabula blog, but the largest percentage of early printed music  in 15th century books is actually found in liturgical works such as Missals. Containing the prayers, readings and chants required for conducting the Catholic mass, the inclusion of music in Missals is practical – conveying the parts of the mass to be sung by the celebrant (the parts of the mass to be sung by the choir, meanwhile,  is contained in a different liturgical work – the gradual).

Notation in Bamberg Missal

Notation in Bamberg Missal

The Missal produced by Johann Pfeyl in Bamberg in 1499 is an outstanding example.  The music consists of a staff of four red lines with black printed neumes in the pointed Gothic ‘horseshoe-nail’ style (the form of notation preferred in German speaking countries). The text of the chant to be sung is printed below.

An obvious feature to note about this book is its lavish use of printing in a combination of two colours. The use of red in liturgical printed works – to indicate instruction or emphasise particularly important parts – followed directly on from the tradition of rubrication in equivalent manuscript liturgical texts. Printing in two colours was a complicated process, however. Inking had to be carefully carried out, with more than one colour being dabbed onto the page of type with painstaking care. Alternatively, the page could pass under the press more than once, masking off the sections not to be printed in the inked colour. This technique of double impression was the process favoured in the production of missals such as this, with the red and black sections printed separately.

Patron Saints holding Bamberg Cathedral

Patron Saints holding Bamberg Cathedral

Vellum page with paschal lamb

Vellum page with paschal lamb

Something of a typographical tour de force, this Missal also includes a small number of illustrations. The Holy Roman Emperor Henry II and his wife Cunegunde of Luxembourg are depicted in one woodcut; they are shown holding Bamberg cathedral, next to the arms of the Bishop of Bamberg, Heinrich Gross von Trockau. This is found at the end of Trockau’s mandate for publication at the beginning of the work, in which all churchmen in Bamberg are promised indulgence and ordered to buy the missal. Also noteworthy in our copy is a hand coloured roundel of the Paschal lamb. This is  found in a gathering of leaves printed on vellum. As a prestigious, hard wearing and long lasting material, vellum was quite often used for printing liturgical works, but we can only speculate as to why only one section of our book was chosen to be printed using vellum, and the rest on paper.

This is a relatively rare edition, with ISTC recording only fifteen other extant copies, many of which are imperfect. Despite its obvious high standard of production and beauty, it seems to have received relatively little attention from book historians.

Both these books are further examples of the musical riches to be found in William Euing’s wonderful library.

The latest ten books added to the project website are:



Categories: Special Collections

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1 reply

  1. In Gerson: Collectorium, do you understand how the line below the stave, reading a, e, i, o, u, is to be interpreted?

    Fascinating examples!

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