‘Voynich Symphony’ to premiere May 4 at Woolsey Hall

The Voynich Manuscript’s inscrutable script and bizarre illustrations have stirred imaginations since bookseller Wilfred Voynich reintroduced the mysterious 15th-century cipher to the public a century ago.

The manuscript has confounded professional code breakers and amateur sleuths; captured the attention of novelists; and, most recently, inspired a work of classical music.

Hannah Lash, composer-in-residence at the New Haven Symphony Orchestra (NHSO), has completed a symphony inspired by the manuscript’s enigmatic illustrations.

The full “Voynich Symphony” will premiere at Woolsey Hall on Thursday, May 4 under the baton of conductor William Boughton, the NHSO’s music director.

Lash, a harpist and a professor of composition at the Yale School of Music, has spent two years composing the symphony, which was commissioned by the NSHO and partially funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

“It’s been wonderful to have had so much time and space to complete this project,” she said. “It’s provided me a lot of time to gestate and clarify my ideas. To hear the culmination of so much work and time will be unbelievably exciting.”

Lash was drawn to the mystery shrouding the cipher manuscript, which resides at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, as well as the beauty and detail of the illustrations that adorn its calfskin pages: unrecognizable plants, intricate astrological charts; and strings of nude women bathing in green pools. 

Lash’s work does not attempt to assign meaning to those images or the unreadable text that accompanies them.

“The relationship between the music and the manuscript is really quite free and loose,” she said.  “As opposed to picking specific images to inspire my writing, I was attempting to convey the space where I tend to find myself when I look at those beautiful illustrations.”

The manuscript’s origins are unknown, although Carbon 14 testing has dated the parchment to the 15th century. Documentary evidence suggests it once belonged to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II, who reigned from 1576 to 1612. At least three individuals in Prague possessed the manuscript after Rudolph II, but it vanished from the historical record in the 17th century, resurfacing in 1912 when Voynich acquired it among a cache of manuscripts he had purchased from the Jesuit order.

Despite his best efforts, Voynich never sold the manuscript. It spent 30 years in a bank vault after the bookseller died in 1930. In 1961, rare-book dealer Hans Peter (“H.P.”) Kraus bought it from Anne Nill, Voynich’s former secretary and confidant, for $24,500 plus half the proceeds of any future sale. Unable to sell the manuscript, Kraus donated it to the Beinecke Library in 1969.

Lash recalled reading about the manuscript when she was younger and being intrigued by the idea of an indecipherable medieval manuscript.

“When the entire manuscript became available online it was a wonderful revelation,” she said.

(Last fall, the Beinecke Library and Yale University Press published a photo facsimile edition of the Voynich Manuscript.)

Composing the symphony for the NHSO seemed like a fitting way to honor an object that had captivated her for so long, Lash said.

The symphony consists of four movements — “Herbal,” “Astronomical,” “Biological,” and “Cosmological” — each endowed with its own character and pacing.  The first three movements debuted in October 2015, May 2016, and October 2016, respectively.

The first movement, “Herbal,” has a quirky and playful character much like the fanciful plants depicted in the manuscript. “Astronomical,” which relates to the illustrations of star charts and celestial bodies, has a slower tempo than the first movement and a more austere character. The third movement, “Biological,” draws inspiration on the whimsical drawings of women wading in pools. The music is crafted as “scherzo,” or a musical jest.  The final movement “Cosmological” conveys a sense of vastness and combines elements of the previous three, Lash said. 

“Material from each movement sort of weave together,” she said. “Underlying patterns that are present in the first movement become the canvas for the second movement. Then certain melodic segments from the second movement are carried over into the third movement.  The fourth movement has shared material with all of the other three that has been reworked.”  

(Lash describes her ideas and approach to the work in a series of videos on the NHSO’s website.) 

While Lash has explored the manuscript online, she did not have a chance to view it in person as the library was under renovation when she began the symphony. She will have the opportunity to handle it on April 26 during a donor-focused event at the library for the NHSO.

“I cannot wait for that,” she said.

To purchase tickets to May 4 performance of the “Voynich Symphony,” visit www.newhavensymphony.org.