Singing from Symbols
The music surged in my ears, truth seeped into my heart . . .
—St. Augustine, Confessions
Striking an ascetic pose in the church sanctuary, St. Augustine (354–430) knelt for a brief instant while motionless as one of the chamber’s stone columns, while the voices of men and women in the choir gently intermingled in a simple, haunting melody rising and falling like incense in the musty air. The sound wafted gently along the cathedral’s walls, intoxicating, sensuous, even seductive—as wily and dangerous as voluptuous Eve’s enticements to a hapless Adam. Flooded with the pleasure of it, Augustine burst into tears. Surrendering to the experience had distracted him from the word of God—a venial sin—and he was gripped with guilt.
For centuries, philosophers had warned of music’s ability to manipulate emotions—provoking sadness, igniting fervor, even enfeebling the mind. Augustine was a witness to the danger, and he recorded his experiences in his Confessions. Four centuries after he penned them, religious authorities were still grappling with the issue, though no longer warning about the threat of beguilement; instead, they began to consider how the very tones that had led Augustine astray could be harnessed in service of the Church’s mission.
In his time, each region under the pope’s reign was caught up in its own way of speaking and thinking, including particular approaches to intoning the sacred hymns. “I myself could hardly believe it,” noted Notker the Stammerer (c. 840–912), one of the leading literary and musical figures of the early Middle Ages, “how widely the different provinces—nay, not the provinces only but districts and cities—differed in the praise of God, that is to say in their method of chanting.” That lack of unity, in the view of religious authorities, robbed the kingdom and the Church of their full power.
They wondered, what if the disparate groups could all be coaxed into singing with a single voice, thereby forging a united people out of a sprawling, polyglot kingdom? It might actually allow the Holy See finally to triumph over a disordered world, though, in fact, putting things in such order seemed a task beyond the abilities of mere mortals.
The job was taken on by Charlemagne (742–814), also known as Charles the Great, the fierce warrior who brought under one rule the individual regions and for his efforts was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day in 800. Charles was the son of King Pepin the Short, ruler of the Franks, who purportedly demonstrated his might by piercing a lion’s neck and severing a bull’s head with just a single blow. According to Notker, Pepin’s followers fell to the ground at the sight of this, and instantly declared his authority over all mankind.
Charlemagne inherited his father’s grit and succeeded him as Defender of the Faith. He was tall, towering over most of his contemporaries. Whether done up in gold-embroidered robes on feast days or wearing a simple tunic, he would always have a sword by his side, especially a cherished one made with a hilt of gold and a jewel-encrusted scabbard. Standard dress for the Franks included gilt-covered boots with red thongs, a rich linen shirt, and a buckled sword-belt covered in leather and hard, shining wax. A stick of applewood was traditionally carried in the right hand—with “regular knots, strong and terrible,” according to one witness. The king’s martial skills unfailingly rattled the spirits of foes. Nithard, son of Charlemagne’s daughter Bertha, claimed that Charles managed to tame the “wild and iron hearts” of the Franks and barbarians alike through a form of “mild terror.” In fact, his name was whispered with such awe that it became part of a well-known magical incantation—the so-called Charlemagne’s Prayer—used to invoke Jesus’s help in resisting the devil and securing protection against enemies, natural disasters, and illness.
But the idea of compelling everyone in his domain to sing hymns in exactly the same manner faced insurmountable obstacles. Some groups, Notker explained, “torn with envy of the glory of the Franks . . . determined to vary their method of singing so that [Charles’s] kingdom and dominion should never have cause to rejoice in unity and agreement.” When it came to venerating God through Gregorian chant—named for Pope Gregory I, the sixth-century saint whose identity has been forever linked to the catalog of hymns—the kingdom was a musical Tower of Babel.
In Milan, many clung to a regional style known as Ambrosian chant, which can be heard in some churches there even today. In southern Spain, the inhabitants preserved Mozarabic chant, cultivated under the Visigoths. And the Germans were considered a lost cause, since, as the medieval Church chronicler John the Deacon put it, “their coarse voices, which roar like thunder, cannot execute soft modulations, because their throats are hoarse with too much drinking.”
In any case, the dream of teaching everyone to sing in exactly the same manner seemed doomed to failure, because there was simply no good way to make it happen—no means of writing down the melodies so that singers could study them. The most common technique used by teachers at the time involved tedious rote exercise: first locating the pitches of a hymn by playing them on an instrument, such as the single-string monochord, and then asking singers to replicate and remember the result. The process was painstaking. It was also unreliable: as St. Isidore, bishop of Seville (c. 560–636), pointed out, the entire enterprise was built on shaky ground. “Unless sounds are held in the memory by man,” he complained, “they perish.”
Various historical efforts to remedy the situation had been tried. Small accent marks in ancient Hebrew cantillation placed next to the words—like signs sometimes used to indicate poetic inflection—communicated fixed melodic shapes. Tibetan monks relied on meandering squiggles to guide their throaty incantations, like seismograph printouts tracing the Earth’s tremors. Odo, abbot of Cluny, resurrected a Greek method employing alphabetical letters. There were graphic representations of music in such disparate places as China and Syria, where an ancient Hurrian song dating to 1400 BCE was discovered on stone tablets, depicted with what appear to be interval names and number signs. But these were all abstract hints. In any case, it’s hard to soar in song while busily attempting to translate theoretical symbols into practice.
The turning point in Europe came about through the efforts of an Italian monk named Guido of Arezzo (990–1050), who as a singing instructor to youngsters daily experienced the difficulties in achieving the alchemy of voices perfectly blended. Guido was studious, devotional, socially awkward, compliant in the face of authority, and extremely frail. Yet he boldly asserted that the usual method of mimicking the sounds of a monochord was “childish,” and good only for beginners. After studying the available theoretical treatises on the subject and experimenting on his students, he devised a practical way of connecting notation to the physical act of singing. Success brought him little more than personal grief; his work was received as a provocation, not a cause for celebration.
The man became a victim of his infatuation, a loner pioneering in his limited world, with no real support system. He was, perhaps unintentionally, a revolutionary leader. What qualities did that term convey? The nineteenth-century anarchist Sergey Nechayev declared in his Catechism of a Revolutionary that “the revolutionary is a doomed man. He has no private interests, no affairs, sentiments, ties, property nor even a name of his own. His entire being is devoured by one purpose, one thought, one passion.” Guido was not spurred by politics or ideology, though his radical solution served a conservative goal (gathering all the flock under the pope’s domain). Yet the revolutionary tag seems apt: in breaking through to a new way of seeing music, he had become an insurgent of sorts, leaving convention and common aspects of life behind as a sacrifice to his vision.
He poured his heart out about the situation in a letter to a fellow monk at his monastery in Pomposa, Brother Michael, declaring that other clerics at the monastery had met his achievement with “envy and scorn.” Their intense animosity created a “dissipating sadness,” he explained, leaving him “dejected and burdened.” As his life situation became increasingly intolerable, he left the Pomposa monastery and found refuge at the cathedral school in the nearby town of Arezzo as a singing teacher, with the help of a bishop named Theodaldus.
In his letter to Michael, Guido compared his own victimization to that of “a certain artisan who presented to Augustus Caesar an incomparable treasure, namely, flexible glass. Thinking that because he could do something beyond the power of all others, he deserved a reward beyond all others, he was by the worst of fortunes sentenced to death, lest, if glass could be made as durable as it is marvelous, the entire royal treasure, consisting of various metals, should suddenly become worthless. And so, from that time on, accursed envy has deprived mortals of this boon, as it once deprived them of Eden.”
Nevertheless, Guido plunged ahead, wrote his Micrologus de disciplina artis musicae, explaining his method, and with Brother Michael’s collaboration put out a collection of chants using the notation he had invented. That successful test of his ideas generated unexpected help from the highest places. When Supreme Pontiff John XIX “heard about the fame of our school and how boys could learn chants that they had never heard before,” explained Guido, “[he] was most intrigued and sent three emissaries to bring me to him. Thus,” he reported, “I went to Rome with revered abbot Dom Grunvald and Dom Peter of Arezzo, provost of the canons of our church, among the most learned men of our time.”
When he arrived, the pope and Guido talked about “many things,” he recalled, and the pontiff looked through the hymn collection “as if it were a miracle of nature.” The pope tried the new method out himself, and found the exorbitant claims—for example, that it was now possible for the first time to “sing an unknown melody” at sight—to be true. Guido’s triumph was affirmed.
Every door was now open to the beleaguered monk. But the heat in Rome was bad for his delicate health, and he quickly retreated again to the Tuscan hills. The pope’s eager embrace of his work, however, had bolstered Guido’s assertion that his new method would make it possible for singers to perfect within five months what used to take ten years. (Perhaps that boast offers a clue as to why he ran into so many difficulties with his jealous colleagues.) The adoption of Guido’s innovation was now inevitable.
What was his revelatory new approach? Musicians familiar with modern music notation will recognize its basic elements. He used a staff of four lines, unlike the five lines used today, on which musical note symbols were placed. Like a geographical grid—where crisscrossing arcs of longitude (east-west) and latitude (north-south) are used to illustrate the location of any place on earth—musical staff lines and the spaces formed between them served as a map on which any pitch in a song could be measured in relation to another. The higher the placement, the higher the pitch. Like rungs of an imaginary ladder, on which musical notes could symbolically climb or descend—traversing the musical scale with complete clarity—the lines became perfect guides. Precise rhythm was not indicated, but time flowed from left to right, like the words in a literary narrative.
The method seems perfectly logical and unsurprising today. Yet the idea of regarding pitches as occupying positions in vertical space required a leap of imagination, because the direction we use when signaling a rise in pitch is somewhat arbitrary: on a piano keyboard, higher tones are found by moving the hands to the right; on a cello, fingers over the strings move downward to find a higher tone. However, we do perceive faster vibrations as higher, and once the spatial orientation is set, eyeing the distance between note symbols—represented by dots, hooks, teardrops, and short lines at first, before settling on a rectangle or, in German manuscripts, a diamond or hobnail, as opposed to today’s elliptical shapes—allows one to grasp at a glance the exact melodic distances in a hymn to be sung.
Guido used additional markers to help the reader: one of the staff lines was colored red to indicate where F belonged; another, in yellow or green, represented the placement of C. These were crucial markers, because in the common scale derived from the series of white notes, the distance from either C or F to the note immediately below is a half step (with no black note intervening on the keyboard), while for the other scale members that distance is two half steps, or a whole step. Without those color codes, wrote Guido, the notation would “be like a well when it does not have a rope, whose waters, although many, are of no benefit to those seeing them.” (The use of colors disappeared in the thirteenth century, replaced in modernity by clefs at the beginning of each line to orient the reader by designating the position of F [in the bass clef], G [in the treble clef], or C.)
Guido gave names to all the musical pitches, using the hymn “Ut queant laxis,” a tune in which every half line of text begins one scale degree higher than the previous one:
Ut queant laxīs
The full gamut of tones became ut (in today’s parlance, do); re; mi; fa; sol; la. (The final note of the scale, si, was added at the beginning of the seventeenth century; it is now commonly rendered as ti.)
Guido’s instructions were practical, though his feeling for the subject and its philosophical motivations ran deep. Revealingly, he reiterated an ancient view about the importance to body and spirit of hitting exactly the right tones. “Through the windows of the body the sweetness of apt things enters wondrously into the recesses of the heart,” he wrote. “So, it is said that of old a certain madman was recalled from insanity by the music of the physician Asclepiades. Also, that another man was roused by the sound of the cithara [an ancient stringed instrument similar to the lyre] to such lust that, in his madness, he sought to break into the bedchamber of a girl, but, when the cithara player quickly changed the mode, was brought to feel remorse for his libidinousness and to retreat abashed. So, too, David soothed with the cithara the evil spirit of Saul and tamed the savage demon with the potent force and sweetness of this art.”
In Guido’s day, the musical textures were unfussy: the same exact melody was most often sung by multiple voices. But as musicians built on Guido’s ideas, adding over over the decades and centuries additional signs to indicate rhythm, dynamics, precisely measured silences, and more, it became increasingly possible for several people, each with his or her own individual musical part, to join together in a complex musical interaction.
Copyright © 2022 by Stuart Isacoff. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.