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Musical Musings: Miscellaneous

The Sound of Music

by Father Clifford Stevens

This article appeared in the September-October 1996 edition of Catholic Heritage magazine, formerly published by Our Sunday Visitor, Inc. The magazine is no longer being published.

The Sound of Music

It's a key scene from The Sound of Music. Young Maria is demonstrating for the von Trapp children that each note has a name. Each note has a tone. One has only to string them together and — presto! — it's a song. Anyone can easily learn to sing anything.

Clearly, that wasn't the case in the 11th century. Nine hundred years ago there was a crisis in sacred music. The chant repertoire of the Church, which by then covered every feast day and every ritual event, was bursting at the seams. Every sacred text used in the liturgy had its own musical setting in a variety of forms: introits, antiphons, graduals, alleluias, tracts, offertories, communions, sequences, hymns.

Not to mention those parts called the Ordinary: Kyries, Glorias, Credos and on and on.

Each had to be committed to memory, with no musical aids except marks noting rise or fall. Chant masters had to be familiar with the whole collection of pieces, and it was their task to train monastic or cathedral choirs to sing them. It was becoming a painfully difficult task.

The problem had been expressed by Saint Isidore of Seville, a great archbishop of the Spanish Church in the sixth century: "Unless sounds are remembered, they perish, for they cannot be written down." This was precisely the crisis: the vast body of sacred music was in danger of being lost, or of becoming so unwieldy that no choir could be expected to learn all of it. Singers simply couldn't commit so much to memory, and trying to teach young singers all the songs was straining the talents of even the best chant masters.

Monasteries such as Saint Gall in Switzerland, one of the great centers of the chants, had devised markings over the text to indicate the rise and fall of the voice, but these were aids to those who already knew that particular melody. There was no way to indicate pitch, the interval between pitch, or a melody line. If choirs were to be trained and the great musical tradition of the Church passed on to a new generation, some method of teaching the singing of music had to be devised. Soon!

A Benedictine monk named Guido d'Arezzo (Guido of Arezzo, Italy, c. 990-c.1050) realized this. (He may have been ordained a priest, but that's not certain.) As a master of music, he struggled with the problem. And as a musical genius, he knew the simple but effective solution he stumbled upon was very, very valuable.

He also noticed that one of the hymns sung in the canonical hours followed a progression of notes that could be easily memorized. The hymn was for vespers on the feast of Saint John the Baptist, and the lines of the hymn, in Latin, read like this:

  1. Ut queant laxis
  2. re-sonare fibris:
  3. mi-ra gestorum
  4. fa-muli tuorum:
  5. sol-ve polluti
  6. la-bii reatus:
  7. Sancte Ioannes
Re, mi, fa, sol.... The names-and the notes-sound so familiar because what d'Arezzo discovered is what has been handed down to us. When we know his notes to sing, we can sing most anything.

Well, with a couple modifications. The name ut was dropped because it was difficult to pronounce and do ("a deer, a female deer") took its place. Also, d'Arezzo's scale was not our octave of eight notes but a hexachord, having only six notes.

Since a melody is a progression from tone to tone, if each tone can be given a name and a familiar melody used to memorize the tones, the teaching of music becomes much easier. It's possible to teach interval singing by a technique called "solphege": singing from do to mi, do to fa, do to sol, and so forth. Now, thanks to d'Arezzo, melodies could be taught using the names of the tones, and later substituting the words of the text. The invention revolutionized choral singing by breaking it free from its dependence on guesswork and sheer memory.

But it wasn't as free from memorization as d'Arezzo wanted it to be. The monk realized more was needed if the singing of chant was to be made easier and not have to depend on knowing hundreds of pieces by heart. There had to be some way to write melodies so a whole choir could follow the same score. After much experimentation, d'Arezzo came up with a four-lined staff, with a tone or note on each line and in each space. With this staff over a sacred text, the rise and fall of the melody could be indicated. It was the first step in the invention of chant notation.

So far so good, but there was still no way of indicating exact pitch. He solved this by using a yellow line to indicate ut, or do, and a red line to indicate fa. Now, melodies could be written down, since the exact pitch and progression from tone to tone could be indicated on the staff. And so musical notation was born.

Very quickly, the colored lines were dropped and a clef or key sign was used to indicate do or fa, and these are still the two clefs used in Gregorian chant. Later, the G clef was used for instrumental music, and that has continued into modern music, where it's used exclusively (with the F clef in the bass staff).

He was recognized as a music master in his own time, and was even invited to Rome to teach his method in the presence of the pope, who ordered the new system be used in all churches and monasteries. The pontiff wanted to keep the Benedictine in Rome, but the weather there did not agree with him and so he returned to Arezzo. After serving as chant master at the cathedral, he was named to the same position at the Camaldolese monastery of Fonte Avellana, where he perfected his method.

D'Arezzo wrote several books on his musical methods and soon the great treasure of Gregorian chant was in black and white, preserved for future generations.

His invention of chant notation made possible the development of "counterpoint," two voices singing on different notes; "polyphony," music sung with several voices, each on a different note; and "harmony," the creation of chords for instrumental music.

From this simple method, modern symphonic music developed, as did the possibility of writing down and preserving musical compositions.

In fact, the whole development of modern music-with its symphonies, songs, melodies, operas and all the popular tunes we know and love-comes from the inventive genius of this medieval chant master, a dutiful Benedictine who was only trying to teach young monks how to sing.

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