The Rise of Sacred Song

Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vatican City
A deacon preparing to sing the Exultet, or Easter Proclamation, while grasping the Paschal candle that the bishop is lighting; illustration in an Exultet roll, a long strip of parchment containing the text and music of the hymn, late tenth century

Sometime in the late 1020s, a choirmaster from Arezzo secured an audience in Rome with Pope John XIX. It can’t have been an entirely comfortable meeting. Guido of Arezzo was no mere musician, but an austere and dedicated monk, committed to the purification of the Catholic Church from the prevailing sin of simony, the buying and selling of holy things. Pope John, by contrast, embodied everything Guido disapproved of. Romanus of Tusculum, as he had been before he became pope, was the brother of his predecessor Benedict VIII, and the younger son of a family of Roman robber barons who had kept the papacy in their pocket for generations. John had been elevated from layman to pope in a single day, and had probably bought his election. If Guido had misgivings about all that, however, he buried them, for he needed the Pope’s endorsement for what was to prove one of the epochal inventions of Western civilization.

As Christopher Page shows in this fascinating book, for almost a thousand years before that meeting in Rome, singing had been integral to Christian worship and hence to Christian identity. But Christian song existed only in the memories and mouths of its singers. With many local variations, the church in the West had long since evolved a common core of prescribed Bible readings, antiphons, psalms, and hymns specific to the time of day, the passage of the liturgical seasons, and the feasts of the saints. But the books that transmitted this daily, weekly, and annual cycle contained only words. Since there was no reliable system of notation to record the sound of singing, the music of these ancient chants was passed from singer to singer as it had always been, painfully acquired by endless repetition, liable to be lost, and subject always to the vagaries of happenstance, the lapse of memory, and the tastes and idiosyncrasies of individual choirmasters.

As one medieval treatise, De Musica, complained, “rarely…do three men agree about one chant,” for there were “as many variations in chanting as there are teachers in the world.” In the ninth century a system of neumes, or marks above the lines of text, had evolved as a primitive kind of aide-mémoire, recording the rise and fall of the singing voice. But these marks indicated only the upward or downward movement of the voice on a given syllable; as Page comments, “the singer knows that a step must be made, but he does not know how large it should be.” The precise pitch and movement of a melody could be discovered only by hearing it sung.

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