17th century music score ‘saved for nation’

Music from a 400-year-old manuscript – once earmarked for sale overseas – is to be performed in Scotland’s oldest concert venue. 

Shadow of hands over a historic lute manuscript
1640 lute manuscript procured by the University with support from partners.

The rare volume was recently been acquired by the University.  It is one of the most important surviving sources of music for the lute – written as the instrument enjoyed huge popularity in 17th century Europe.

Rare manuscript

The manuscript, thought to have been created in Bavaria around 1620, is still in its original binding. It will initially be exhibited at St Cecilia’s Hall, in Edinburgh’s Old Town, alongside a lute also dating from the same time.

A series of concerts is planned to take place at the University venue, giving audiences a chance to hear how the music might have been performed by travelling musicians at the time.

The volume, which contains 320 works, will also be digitised and made available for researchers as part of the University of Edinburgh’s Heritage Collections.

We are delighted to be able to exhibit this incredibly rare and important manuscript. Thanks to the generosity of our partners and supporters, the lute manuscript will enrich students’ and visitors’ understanding of how music was played and enjoyed at the time. To have compositions performed on the instruments for which they were written offers amazing insights into compositional and performance practices that inspire musicians of today in many different ways.

Dr Jenny NexCurator and Lecturer in Musical Instruments at the University 

European links

It contains pieces by French, Italian and British composers – 89 of which are not found in any other manuscript. Among them is the melancholy masterpiece Lachrimae Pavan by the celebrated composer John Dowland.

The manuscript was once owned by the French-born musician and instrument maker Arnold Dolmetsch, who was a leading figure in the 20th-century revival of interest in early music.

Partner support

It had been reserved for sale internationally, but the UK Government imposed an export bar on the book to give UK institutions the chance to secure it.

The University’s purchase was made in partnership with the National Heritage Memorial Fund, and with support from the National Fund for Acquisitions and the Friends of the National Libraries. University donors, including the Friends of St Cecilia’s Hall, also contributed to the purchase.

We are delighted to have awarded a grant to the University of Edinburgh to secure the future of this significant and rare musical manuscript.  The manuscript had been at risk of export but now will be cared for in the university collections in perpetuity.  It is so thrilling to think that John Dowland’s beautiful piece, Lachrimae, is contained within the manuscript, showing the importance of British music and musicians and the influence they had on their contemporaries on the continent.  There remains much to be learned and this lute manuscript will provide an ongoing rich resource for uncovering more fascinating insights into Early music and our wider history. 

Eilish McGuinnessChief Executive of the National Heritage Memorial Fund

Historic hall 

St Cecilia’s Hall was completed in 1763. The venue, with its distinctive oval concert hall, has had many uses since then, including as a school, a masonic lodge and a dance hall.

The University of Edinburgh purchased the building in 1959 and a major two-year refurbishment of its concert room and music museum was completed in 2015.

Related links

St Cecilia's Hall

Centre for Research Collections

Heritage Lottery Fund

National Fund for Acquisitions

Friends of the National Libraries

Giving at the University of Edinburgh 

Image credit: David Cheskin