#SingYourBinding

By Emily Beck

17th century sheet music from the binding of Phytognomonica (1588)
17th century music from the binding of Phytognomonica (1588)

I recently experienced a new way of learning about book bindings while curating the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine’s 2018-2019 exhibit, The Secret Lives of Books.

Part of this exhibit will focus on the material aspects of the rare books in the library’s collection. The exhibit will explore topics like the tooled leather of covers, the marbled paper of endsheets, and the quality of paper used in printing.

A discovery in the binding

In the course of exhibit research, I found many books bound in recycled pieces of parchment and paper, likely as a cost-saving measure. Interestingly, Wangensteen Historical Library has several books that were bound in sheets of music.

I was curious to hear what some of these musical book bindings sounded like, so I sent photos of the Wangensteen’s copy of Giambattista della Porta’s botanical book, Phytognomonica (1588) to my friend Victoria Fraser, a soprano and specialist in early, sacred music.

History revealed

Victoria told me that these three short pieces are part of a standard mass text. The first two would likely have been sung by a group of people, but the third, the Kirie (typically spelled Kyrie) was probably sung by a soloist.

She could tell from the musical notation that this piece would not have been written before the 15th century, but that it is likely from the 17th century based on the handwriting.

Although the music was written after the book was published in 1588, and we aren’t sure when it was bound in this binding, exploring the musical and religious tenor of the material aspects of the book is quite interesting.

Turn up your volume and listen below to these three short, historical pieces of music that became a book binding!

About the artist

Victoria Fraser
Victoria Fraser

Victoria Fraser is an Alaska-born soprano.  She holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Smith College where she graduated summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa and with high honors. She went on to complete a Master of Music in vocal performance from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and a second Masters in Sacred Music at the University of Notre Dame.

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