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Exhibition Includes Recent Acquisitions

Music for the Masses: Illuminated Choir Books
At the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center, August 14-October 28, 2007

June 21, 2007

LOS ANGELES—Some of the largest and most beautiful manuscripts that survive from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance are books containing the music of Christian church ceremonies.  Music for the Masses: Illuminated Choir Books, at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center, August 14-October 28, 2007, is an exhibition of over 40 manuscripts and leaves from the Getty Museum's collection that explores the various types of choir books and their characteristic illumination. 

Music for the Masses surveys the types of books that contained music, the scenes that appear in choir books and the famous artists who painted them, the individuals who used these books, and the various forms of musical notation used to transcribe melodies.  Accompanying the exhibition are recorded versions of selected chants from the manuscripts on display.

In early medieval Europe, music was generally transmitted from generation to generation orally until the 800s, when monks began to transcribe their melodies in choir books.  Music manuscripts eventually grew to a large size so that the multiple members of a choir could sing from them, and the beginning letters of each chant in the most lavish books were enlarged and filled with scenes related to the hymns they introduced.  Choir books were often used to perform musical chants during two main types of Christian liturgical ceremonies: the mass, the public ceremony in which the bread and wine are blessed and consumed; and the divine office, prayers said primarily by monks and nuns throughout the day at monasteries.

The splendid decoration of these manuscripts underscores the great significance of music in medieval life.  The elaborate decoration at the beginning of each chant acted as a bookmark for the singers, a visual reminder of the feast being celebrated, and an inspiration for their singing.  In The Elevation of the Host (from an Italian missal), several monks gather around a lectern and sing from a choir book during the celebration of the mass.  This scene offers a rare glimpse into how these manuscripts were used in their church and monastic contexts in the Middle Ages. 

Choir books are one of the strengths of the Getty Museum’s collection and a part of the collection that has grown dramatically in the past three years.  This exhibition will present for the first time at the Getty six recent acquisitions to the collection that have been made since 2005.

Music for the Masses: Illuminated Choir Books is curated by Christine Sciacca, assistant curator of manuscripts, the J. Paul Getty Museum.

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Desiree Alcalde-Wayne
Getty Communications Dept.

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