Kirstin Kennedy, V&A Curator:
This knife that we see here is in a display about Dining in the gallery which is all about how people lived and what sort of possessions they had in their houses. And as you see it is rather a splendid knife and we are not actually entirely sure what it was used for. Part of the design suggests that it was used for cutting meat – it has a fairly sharp blade. But the width of it suggests that it may have been used to present meat. You offered a slice of meat that you’d carved to a diner. And of course this little point at the end here, you see, would have been used also to pick up a slice of meat. So we don’t know. And then of course the engraving on it is very unusual. You see here that it has musical notation on one side and on the other. So if you turned it, it works rather well. And this is a part for one singer, and there would have been other knives with other parts for other singers. And how was this used? Did people pick up their knife and sing a little and then turn it over and sing a little again and then use it? Because of course diners in very grand feasts didn’t cut their own meat. They had squires to cut it for them. It was a specialised job with its own rules and its own, sort of, own status. It was quite an important job. So it’s a bit of a mystery.
The V&A has this wonderful knife that I first came across in a book about 10 years ago and thought what an extraordinary object and then when I went to work at the V&A, I obviously went to look at it, and wanted to find out more about it, and always wondered whether it was part of a larger set, because it’s got one voice part name – Tenor – written on it, which suggests that there might have been other voice parts. So I started to look into it and found out through the Museum’s records that there were indeed other examples. There are some in America, in Philadelphia. It turns out there are some in Paris, one in a private collection in Belgium, some in the Netherlands, one in Germany, and so, slowly, slowly, over quite a number of years, I’ve been piecing together the location of these knives, getting photographs of them, and then actually starting to transcribe the music that’s found on them.
Obviously I needed the images of all these knives to actually show the music on both sides, because of course each knife on the blade has the grace to be sung – no, sorry, I got that wrong – the Benediction to be sung at the beginning of a meal, and then the Grace to be sung at the end of it. And so the notation is very clear on these knives so… my background is in musicology – I have a Ph.D. in musicology – so I was able – in early music – so I was able to write to write down the music and put it into a kind of modern notation that we would use today, and I’ve been working with the people here in the Royal College of Music, who also have great experience in this sort of thing, advising me on how to actually, you know, write it out, and then we’ve been recording the actual music today which has been fantastic.
In the recording studio:
Page Two, Bar Two – could it, could it end quite sort of quietly?
And then strong on the Amen again. And so the Unus is quiet on that cadence and then… and then a strong ending as you said.
Hearing the recordings being made today has been absolutely extraordinary. I mean, I’ve been working with these knives and longing to actually hear what they would have sounded like originally when sung from. I’ve bashed out this music on the piano myself, but of course that doesn’t give you anything like the same indication as hearing voices perform it, so for me it’s been quite emotional, but it’s also really shown me that they do function. I mean, I think there’s always been a question mark as to whether or not they were actually used in context and I think there’s no question, having heard the performances today, that that would have been entirely possible.
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