Ireland’s Oldest Music Manuscript?

Published in Features, Issue 3 (Autumn 1997), Medieval History (pre-1500), Volume 5

When Duke Heinrich II issued a charter for the newly founded Irish monastery in Vienna in the year 1161, he stipulated that, as far as its occupants were concerned, Irishmen only need apply! The new monastery was originally founded as one of the daughter houses of the important Irish Benedictine foundation dedicated to St James in Regensburg, but it soon became a success story in its own right. Strategically placed en route to the Holy Land, it served as a hospice for Irish, and other, pilgrims or even crusaders travelling overland to Palestine.
As in the case of its mother-house at Regensburg, the Vienna monastery quickly developed into an important centre not only of hospitality towards pilgrims and other travellers but also of literary and historiographical activity. The Irish monks made themselves useful by providing the Viennese with chronicles of important events and by contributing to collections of saints’ Lives which were copied in the neighbouring monastic houses. Duke Heinrich II had in the meantime chosen to reside in Vienna and had set about creating out of the former Roman castrum the city that was to become the capital of Austria. Having previously been impressed by the achievements of the Irish monks in Regensburg, the Duke singled out the Irish community, whose monastery was located in the heart of the expanding city, to play a major part in his plans for Vienna.
Not surprisingly, the monastery itself expanded considerably over the next few centuries. (This is apparent even in the spread of the modern buildings attached to the monastery in the heart of the city. Apart from the church, which was rebuilt in baroque style, the monastery comprises a large library, a prestigious boarding school and restaurant where wines from vineyards owned by it in the surrounding countryside can be sampled.) And for over two centuries, until Austrian Benedictine monks took charge in 1418, the monastery remained in Irish hands. By the beginning of the fifteenth century, however, lack of recruits from home, as well as difficulties with German and Austrian neighbours, had led to the decline of all the Irish monasteries on the Continent, including Vienna, which had now become a pale shadow of its former greatness. We may count ourselves fortunate, therefore, that a collection of manuscripts, however paltry by comparison with what it once must have been, has survived to bear witness to the former glory of these Irish monasteries generally and, in particular, of that in Vienna.
When taken together, the manuscript sources, some of which survive only in the form of late copies, give us an accurate impression of the privileged status enjoyed by the whole network of Irish monasteries in the German-speaking countries throughout the later Middle Ages. Protected by privileges from successive emperors and popes, the individual monasteries, most of which were located in Bavaria, exercised considerable influence within their host communities. Liturgical documents, such as necrologies, include names of numerous local benefactors, and calendars and collections of saints’ Lives imply close co-operation with neighbouring churches. What is of particular interest from an Irish point of view, however, is the fact that these documents also reflect continuing close contacts with the homeland and, in particular, with Munster which was the native province of most abbots and monks. The annals kept at the monastery in Vienna, for instance, provide a record of twelfth-century events in Ireland, with particular emphasis on the fortunes of the MacCarthy kings of South Munster. In fact, this, as well as other products of the Irish scriptoria on the Continent, sometimes provides information on medieval Ireland that is unavailable from native sources.
Although surviving only in scattered fragments, the contents of the medieval Irish library in Vienna has recently become the object of quite unusual attention, at least by Irish standards. Research carried out during the last decades in the library of the monastery has led to the discovery in the bindings of books and registers of later centuries fragments of twelfth- and thirteenth-century manuscripts, many of which contained musical scores. On examination, these fragments turned out to be the fairly sizeable remains of the library of a schola cantorum dating back to the earliest times of the Irish monastery. And for Vienna, which takes immense pride in its reputation as a city of music, the discovery of its oldest musical scores naturally created a great sensation!
Altogether, the remnants of five magnificent antiphonaries, some graduals, missals and other texts have been identified. Palaeographical examination has also revealed that some of the manuscripts belonged to the period before the establishment of the monastery, which means that they were probably brought from the mother-house at Regensburg. Indeed, some of the fragments were old enough to allow the possibility of an Irish provenance, and if this is borne out by further investigation, these would also constitute this country’s oldest musical scores.
In 1996, thanks to the initiative of Roisín Ní Mheara, some of the original manuscript leaves were exhibited at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin with the permission of the Abbot of the Schottenstift (the current name of the Irish monastery) in Vienna. The exhibition subsequently moved to University College Cork, not inappropriately, since, as already stated, most of the personnel of the Irish monasteries on the Continent came from Munster, and one of the last Irish abbots in Vienna, Donaldus, had attained the rank of rector magnificus of the university established there in 1365.
Interest in the reconstruction of these medieval liturgical manuscripts is still very much alive in Vienna, in sharp contrast to Ireland where musical specialists have shown no reaction to the two exhibitions. At present, plans for a facsimile edition of the texts under the aegis of the Vienna Schottenstift, by its musicologist Dr Martin Czernin in co-operation with the present writer and with Helen Davis of the library of University College Cork, are well advanced. And finally, experts on medieval music in Germany are already hoping to stage a conference on these remarkable survivals of late medieval Irish cultural activity on the Continent.

Dagmar Ó Riain tutors in medieval history at University College Cork.

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