University of Rochester

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Honey Meconi awarded NEH grant to study ‘early iPods’

By June Avignone

Honey Meconi

Honey Meconi has received funding to research and write a book about the history of ancient musical manuscripts known as chansonniers. She describes the masterpieces as “early iPods.”

When the magic is right, an object of art can inform the heart through both imbedded truths and unrelenting ethereal beauty. Ask Honey Meconi, who was a Harvard graduate student in Brussels in 1981 when she got her first close-up look at an authentic 16th-century illustrated musical manuscript and was hit “full force with the unreal power” of the chansonnier.

“It was a unique jewel, glorious colors, with so much time and attention put into it that it was still shimmering, centuries and centuries later,” says Meconi, a professor for both the University’s music department and Eastman School, of that first manuscript featuring the chansons, or French secular songs, by the Renaissance composer Pierre de la Rue. Until then, she had only seen black-and-white microfilms of the one-of-a-kind creations.

Now, more passionate than ever about the beauty of chansonniers and the rich stories they possess, Meconi, who specializes in music before 1600, will have the opportunity to research and write a book about the history of such masterpieces. The recipient of a $50,400 National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, Meconi will spend July 2008 through June 2009 studying manuscripts in Europe, namely Paris, and in the United States.

At Eastman’s Sibley Music Library, Meconi will examine a 15th-century chansonnier with eight surviving folios that has clearly captured her heart and scholarly imagination. While there are numerous early music manuscripts at Sibley, the largest academic music library in North America, this particular chansonnier is unusual, says Meconi, in that it is a palimpsest—a parchment manuscript that has had its original layer scraped away and new material added in its place.

“Today we just crumble up a piece of paper and that’s it,” says Meconi, who compares chansonniers to “early iPods.” “Each chansonnier reflects the choices of an individual, as does each iPod, in contrast to a modern commercial CD that has choices made for the purchaser,” says Meconi.

The early equivalent to the commercial CD is the printed chansonnier, which appeared in 1501, and essentially signaled the end of individual choice, she explains.

Meconi’s upcoming book, to be entitled A Cultural History of the Chansonnier, will show how the illuminated manuscripts helped to reflect and shape social values and served as secular equivalents to books of hours, which featured prayers and psalms used for Catholic Christian worship.

Chansonniers, in general, she says, functioned as rare opportunities for individual expression within the world of book ownership.

“Every chansonnier is done by an independent artist, for an individual, and often featured decorated initials and detailed borders on parchment, a much costlier material that is so nice to the touch,” says Meconi. “They remained objects of desire long after the music ceased to be performed.” Some chansonniers featured miniatures of people and scenes from everyday life, she says.

By literally uncovering the layers of the past, the social relevance contained in the chansonniers surfaces as well. Using ultraviolet light, Meconi has been able to recover some of the original music on the palimpsest at Sibley, which she has dated to the 1470s. Her findings suggest that more than six different scribes added music to the manuscript. While the process has yielded important insights, shining ultraviolet light on a palimpsest reveals all the layers at once, making it very difficult to tell the different layers apart, says Meconi. The next step is to take the manuscript to a high-tech facility where specialized photos can be taken to uncover layers that are “stripped away.”

The text of chansons, which range from bitter unhappiness to depictions of romantic love, reveal much about behaviors of the day, says Meconi, who is also the director of the Susan B. Anthony Institute for Gender and Women’s Studies at the University, an educational institute dedicated to understanding the role of women and gender in society.

“You learn about hierarchy of the times, such as if you are a knight or member of the nobility it is okay to use certain language to try to bed the shepherdess or lower class woman spotted in the field,” says Meconi. “But there were different songs of respect for singing about love to a woman from the upper class or nobility.”

Meconi, who plays the flute with the University’s Wind Symphony, is completing a book about the composer Hildegard of Bingen, a prolific 12th-century German nun who was also an artist, author, naturalist, visionary, and activist. “When we think of great composers, we think of someone who breaks the norm,” says Meconi, who is also the musical director of The Hildegard Project, a long term initiative in which different groups perform the composer’s music for various venues. “Her music does that, and is simply gorgeous, even though she didn’t start writing until her 40s.”

For centuries, women were told being creative was not good for them, that it would make them sick, but a nun such as Hildegard had freedom, an independent income, and was not responsible for a husband, in an age without birth control and high mortality rates for women during childbirth, she says.

“A room of one’s own, after all, is what we need to create, that and some time to pursue uncovering the truth and beauty around us,” Meconi says. “It’s what we still need.”

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