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Margins of History

Friday, December 21, 2018
Kristie Kummerer and medieval music page

Trinity student discovers long-lost medieval music, shares with churches worldwide

by Jeremy Gerlach

Kristie Kummerer ’18 came to Trinity expecting to find a hidden gem, but never thought she’d uncover an actual piece of medieval treasure on campus.

Kummerer, a history and music major at Trinity, discovered a beautiful, long-lost medieval manuscript gathering dust in Trinity’s Special Collections library. This manuscript is a collection of musical chants sung by monks during church mass—including some that hadn’t been sung for centuries.

“This was a lost treasure that no one knew about,” Kummerer says. “And I wanted to do whatever I could to share it with the world.”

The manuscript, originally donated by Jane Stieren in 1996, had never been researched before. Kummerer, guided by Trinity music professor Kimberlyn Montford, eventually published a senior thesis on this topic. Kummerer estimates the manuscript originated between 1480 and 1520, and contains Latin chants from the Catholic Mass Proper, used in services ranging from Advent to Easter. Most interestingly, the manuscript also carries Spanish “marginalia”, or marginal notes, written in several different hands, which reveals the document was used throughout different time periods in Spain. This is almost unheard of for such manuscripts, which typically were only used for a short time due to changing doctrines and practices in the medieval church.

Kummerer and medieval music in library

This research is impressive enough, but at Trinity, our work reaches outside of the library. In the span of a week after Kummerer released her thesis, an Austin church eagerly contacted her with an exciting opportunity:

Jamieson Taylor, choir director of All Saints Presbyterian Church, commissioned Kummerer and music composer Susan Meitz to set chants from Kummerer’s manuscript to music for a modern choir. The project has already attracted interest from churches and choirs across the U.S. and as far away as Ireland.

The project, known as The Trinity Commission, will have a world premiere on March 25, 2019 at All Saints Presbyterian Church in Austin. The concert will be performed by the Trinity University Chamber Singers and directed by music professor and choir director Gary Seighman.

The piece will also be published and already has several other performances lined up in 2019 by other choirs and churches. Kummerer notes the Trinity Commission also caught the eye of Cina Crisara, the Chorus Master and Assistant Conductor of the Austin Opera, who played a role in the musical component of the project.

“This is very exciting and overwhelming,” Kummerer says. “This is insane how much has happened. When I started my research, I had no idea where it would lead—now there are other choir directors who want their ensembles to sing this, and they don’t even know what it sounds like yet.”

If not for Trinity’s unique approach to the liberal arts and undergraduate research, Kummerer herself might never have heard this music, either.

The manuscript sat, overlooked, in Trinity’s Special Collections for decades, just waiting for an adventurous student to unlock its mysteries. And even if someone had stumbled upon it before Kummerer, they would have found a tough puzzle to crack.

Kummerer plays violin

The text requires a mixture of musical, religious, and historical knowledge to understand, since the document is ancient and steeped in complex, arcane Latin and Catholic terminology. So, finding it was a stroke of destiny for Kummerer, a music and history double major, who just so happened to also have ten years of Latin experience, minored in Medieval and Renaissance Studies and Ancient Mediterranean Studies, has a church background, and served as an active member of Trinity’s Reformed University Fellowship while on campus.

“I think it took someone with a unique combination of interests to understand it,” says Kummerer, a lifelong violinist and vocalist. “This research matched up perfectly with all my interests and all my background.”

And while Trinity’s take on the liberal arts allows students like Kummerer to pursue diverse interests, the University’s big-school resources mean that undergraduates like Kristie don’t have to wait in line behind graduate students to conduct breakthrough research.

“At Trinity, I think a lot of people have no idea how much control you have over what you research,” Kummerer says. “You come up with your own research topic, take it to a professor, and they’re so open to helping you follow your passion.”

students singing in stairwell

At bigger schools, students often have to compete with other undergraduates for access to technology, library documents, and faculty attention. But Kummerer says her research experience was quite the opposite: she actually had a host of other students ask if they could help bring her research to life by recording a performance of the music for her thesis presentation.

“Out of the kindness of their hearts, a bunch of my friends from Chamber Singers and Dr. Seighman got together one night at 10 p.m. in the Dicke Smith stairwell, because that’s the most cathedral-like echo we could find, and we recorded four of the chants,” Kummerer says. “It was just cool that all these people were dedicating time to helping with my project just because they wanted to help, to encourage this research.”

Right there in the stairwell was the first time these words had been sung—or heard—in nearly six hundred years.

“Just to hear those medieval chants, to recreate them as they would have been sung back then is just really cool,” Kummerer says. “This is just such a ‘Trinity’ thing to have happen.”

In addition to publishing her thesis, Kummerer would also go on to present at an American Musicological Society Conference in October 2017, ending up on Google Scholar. Currently, she is “living and breathing medieval history”, studying medieval music manuscripts as a master’s student in Medieval Studies at University College Dublin in Ireland. Once she finishes that program in 2019, she plans to become a professor and researcher in medieval history.

Kummerer says she’d never have considered this career a possibility if not for her research on the manuscript at Trinity.

“Word is spreading: when I started, I thought just a few people at Trinity would know [about the manuscript]. But now people know about this discovery in Austin, they know about it in Ireland, around the world,” Kummerer says. “I’m already seeing correlations between what I learned here at Trinity and how I apply that in the real world.”

Jeremy Gerlach is Trinity University’s brand journalist. If you’re interested in attending the world premiere in Austin, he invites you to visit the All Saints page for more information.