The Sound of Music
by Fr. Clifford Stevens
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
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, glories,
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 St. 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
Monasteries such as St. 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 St. John the Baptist, and
the lines of the hymn, in Latin, read like this: UT queant laxis
REsonare fibris: MIre gestorum ,FAmuli tuorum: SOlve polluti LAbii
reatus: Sancte Joannes.
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 "solphaging": 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 fat 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 fa 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
From this simple method, modern symphonic music developed, as did
the possibility of writing down and preserving musical
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.
Father Clifford Stevens writes from Tintern Monastery in Oakdale,
The Early Years
As a young boy, Guido d'Arezzo was educated at the Benedictine
monastery of Pomposa, near Ferrara, Italy. It was as a young monk
that he came to love chant, learned to treasure the great musical
masterpieces of the Church's liturgy and found himself appointed
to teach the young of the monastery.
With another young monk, Brother Michael, he created an
"antiphonary" (or chant book), in which, above the text to be
sung, he drew lines and notes. These are the same marks that are
so familiar to anyone who has studied Gregorian chant. Under
d'Arezzo's new system, the young monks could sing anything in the
chant repertory, and his choir at Pomposa became famous throughout
When he was criticized for making professional singers out of a
bunch of youngsters-and, in the process, making every other
monastery envious of him-he moved to Arezzo, where the bishop,
Theodaldus, was delighted to have him. The bishop invited the
master of music to become the chant master at his cathedral. He
also asked d'Arezzo to put his ideas and methods into writing, and
from this Guido wrote his first book on music, "Micrologus." It
was then that the pope heard about his remarkable new method and
invited him to Rome.
In the 19th century, when the treasure of Gregorian chant was
again in danger of being lost, the monks of Solesmes, a
Benedictine monastery in France, went back to the old manuscripts
and, using Guido d'Arezzo's chant notation, brought them back to
life again for the modern world.
-Father Clifford Stevens
This article was taken from the September/October 1996 issue of
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