Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Walter of Evesham

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WALTER of Evesham or Walter Odington (fl. 1320), Benedictine writer, was a monk of Evesham Abbey. In the colophon to his treatise on alchemy he calls himself 'Ego frater Walterus de Otyntone monachus de Evesham.' There are villages called Oddington, Odington, or Ottington in several counties, Oddington in Northern Oxfordshire being probably Walter's birthplace. A calendar beginning with 1301, compiled by Walter for Evesham Abbey, is preserved in the Cambridge University Library. He afterwards removed to Oxford, and in 1316 was occupied in astronomical observations there (Laud. MSS. Miscell. 674). An accountbook of Merton College written about 1330 mentions Walter de Evesham among those residents for whose rooms new locks were to be provided.

Walter de Evesham has very frequently been confounded with Walter de Einesham, a monk of Canterbury, who was chosen by the monks (but not appointed) archbishop of Canterbury in 1228. The mistake was first made by Bale, who has been copied by Holinshed, Hawkins, Tanner, Burney, Tindal, Kiesewetter, Fétis, and many others. The account in Steevens's Continuation of Dugdale's 'Monasticon,' describing Walter as a hard student, working far into the night, is obviously fanciful.

The works by Walter still preserved are: 'De Speculatione Musices,' in six books (Corpus Christi Coll. Cambridge MS. 401); 'Ycocedron,' a tract on alchemy in twenty chapters (Digby MS. 119); 'Declaratio motus octavæ spheræ' (Laud. MSS. Miseeil. 674); 'Tractatus de multiplicatione specierum in visu secundum omnem modum,' 'Ars metrica Walteri de Evesham,' 'Liber Quintus Geometric per numeros loco quantitatum,' and the 'Calendar for Evesham Abbey' (Cambridge University MSS. li. i. 13). Leland ascribes to him 'De mortibus [sic] planetarum,' 'Paofaciuin [sic] Judaeum,' and 'De mutatione aeris.'

The only printed work by Walter is the 'De Speculatione Musices,' a most valuable work, which Burney justly described as an epitome of mediaeval musical knowledge sufficient to replace the loss of all other known treatises. It was included in Coussemaker's 'Scriptores de Musica,' vol. i. The first three books deal with acoustics and the division of the monochord, the fourth with the rudiments of musical notation, the fifth with the ecclesiastical plain-song, the last— by far the most interesting—with mensurable music. In Riemann's 'Geschichte der Musiktheorie' (Leipzig, 1898) Walter is put forward as the earliest theorist who plainly argues in favour of the consonance of thirds (major or minor), maintaining that the entire common chord, with doublings in the octave, should be considered consonant. This was a most important step in the development of the musical art, which had been for centuries delayed through the adoption by Boethius of the Pythagorean tuning, in which thirds are dissonant. Walter's words suggest that English musical practice had already used thirds; he admits that the ratios which he proposes for the major and minor thirds are not in exact agreement with mathematical calculation, but states that the voices naturally temper the intervals, producing a pleasant combination (Riemann, op.cit. pp. 120,318, and preface). In the sixth book Walter gives rules for the construction of the motetus, rondellus, conductus, and truncatus. He evidently felt that music could become a structural art, able to bear analysis on its own merits; but he could not quite find out the way to accomplish this, and the problem was not solved till the time of John Dunstable [q.v.] Walter gives as example a rondel on 'Ave Mater Domini,' which is most discordant. This portion of his treatise is quoted in Cottonian MS., Tiberius B ix., burnt in 1731, but known from a copy now in British Museum Additional MS. 4909.

Walter Odington's treatise is also much used in Riemann's 'Zur Geschichte der Notenschrift,' §§ 2, 4, 5, 7, and 8; in Jacobsthal's 'Die Mensuralnotenschrift des 12 und 13 Jahrhunderts;' in E. Krueger's 'System der Tonkunst;' in Naumann's 'lllustrirte Geschichte der Musik,' ch. 9; in David and Lussy's 'Histoire de la Notation Musicale;' and Nagel's 'Geschichte der Musik in England,' pp. 35-40. All these writers, however, have been misled by the wrong date given, by Bale. Some expressions of Naumann's (Engl. edition, p. 288) referring to the famous round, 'Sumer is icumen in,' have misled the editor of a reprint of Chappell's 'Popular Music of the Olden Time,' and others also, into supposing that Naumann assigned the composition to Walter; but Naumann was alluding to the discovery of the piece, and did not suggest any author. In any case, Walter could not have produced either the tune or the words, which were certainly written down by John of Fornsete, who died in 1239. The directions for performance as a double canon, which make 'Sumer is icumen in' so inexplicably in advance of its age, are, in the opinion of some authorities, in a later handwriting; but there is no reason to suppose they were by Walter, who does not mention canons or the device of imitation anywhere in his exhaustive treatise.

[Coussemaker's Scriptores de Musica, i. 182- 250, and Traites inedits sur la Musique du Moyen-Age; Cat. Cambridge University MSS. iii. 323, 326; Cat. of MSS. in Bodleian Library, Codd. Laudiani, Codd. Digbeiani; Masters's Cat. Parker MSS. in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge; Muniments of Merton College, in Hist. MSS. Comm. 6th Rep. p. 548; Barney's General History of Music, ii. 155-61, 193; Grove's Dictionary of Music, iv. 734; Davey's History of English Music, pp. 35-7, 52, 501; Works quoted.]

H. D.