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The Rise of Sacred Song

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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.

Guido of Arezzo, however, had brought to Rome an invention that was to change all that. Like other earlier musical theorists, he allocated a series of letters to the rising notes of the singing voice. Guido then prolonged these letters above the text to be sung by tracing a series of four horizontal lines across the page. The “mode” of the melody—in modern equivalents, and very roughly indeed, the key signature and starting pitch—was indicated by a clef sign on one line colored red or yellow. The other lines were often simply scratched with a point into the parchment of the book, but the sequence of notes or neumes strung out along these lines enabled the singer to repeat the identical sequence at the right pitch on every reading, even though he had never heard them sung by anyone else.

Guido had prepared an antiphoner, using his system of lines and neumes to record the prescribed chants for the liturgy of the hours as they were sung at Arezzo. And John was duly impressed, “turning the pages…as if it were a marvel and studying the prefatory rules”; the excited pope prolonged the audience till he had mastered Guido’s revolutionary new technique, and “had learned one versicle he had never heard.”

Even with the Pope’s endorsement, Guido’s system would take generations to become universally accepted: in some places singers were still acquiring their repertoire by memory as late as the fifteenth century. But slowly, monastery by monastery, cathedral by cathedral, the potential of the new notation was grasped. The late-eleventh-century chronicle of the Belgian monastery of Sint Truiden recalls the electrifying impact of Guido’s new technique, brought there by Rudolf of Moutier-sur-Sambre, a stranger who spoke neither Walloon nor German, so that the choirboys could barely understand him, yet “to the amazement of the senior monks he made them sing straight away, only by looking…what they had never learned by hearing.”

Children still learn to sing using Guido’s sequence of letters—ut (do), re, mi, fa, sol, la—and in a slightly modified form his system of lines, the stave, provides the fundamental framework for the composition and transmission of most Western music. The stave not only facilitated the acquisition of tunes without tears; in the longer run, it made possible the creation of elaborate polyphony. Tallis’s forty-part motet Spem in Alium, Bach’s B-Minor Mass, the symphonies of Beethoven, Mahler’s Ninth—all would have been inconceivable without the pious ingenuity of Guido of Arezzo.

Christopher Page’s magnificent survey of the first thousand years of Western Christian music sets out to reconstruct the evolutionary processes that culminated in Guido’s breakthrough. Page is a medievalist teaching in the Faculty of English at Cambridge, but he is also a gifted musician, founder and one-time director of Gothic Voices, one of Britain’s most prestigious and pioneering early music choral ensembles. Paradoxically, however, the first three quarters of his book has almost nothing to say about music itself, for, as he observes, there are “no systematic or consolidated records of western musical notation” for about nine tenths of his period. Centuries of song are therefore lost in irrecoverable silence. It may be that some of the chants of the liturgy of Easter night do indeed take us back to “the origin of liturgical chant in late antiquity,” but the arguments that might establish that continuity are too technical and uncertain to become a secure part of his story.

What he offers us instead is breathtakingly ambitious even so. This is nothing less than a social history of the ministry and ministers of music in Western Christendom, from the New Testament to the age of the Crusades, and from the Vandal churches of North Africa to the monasteries of Carolingian and Capetian Europe. Drawing on an astonishing range of material—catacomb inscriptions, magical amulets, letters, saints’ lives, charters, and monastic chronicles—and making especially effective use of Latin etymology and the neglected corpus of both Greek and Latin epigraphy, Page resurrects from the dead a forgotten gallery of singers and composers, and locates them in the wider setting of the church of their times. His book is no narrow contribution to musicology or the history of liturgy, though it makes substantial contributions to both. Instead, it uses the history of Christian chant and cantors as a window to throw fresh light onto the complex evolution of the churches of late antiquity and the Carolingian world.

We know little or nothing about the music of the first Christian communities, though in the early second century a writer like Ignatius of Antioch deployed metaphors of music and harmony that suggest how central music was in fostering Christian community. Page doubts, though, whether there was a distinctive early Christian music, because in the cosmopolitan mix of faiths and ethnic identities in which Christianity emerged, Christian music, like Christian visual art, almost certainly borrowed forms and themes from both Jewish and pagan sources. References to the singing of “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” occur in the Pauline letters in contexts that may indicate that the writer had specifically in mind the arrangements for singing in Christian households. The earliest churches were based in the houses of prosperous converts, and Page suggests that the role of the singer often developed as part of the familial structure of ministry of such communities—the wealthy paterfamilias assumed the duties of presbyter or bishop, served by a son as deacon, and by his daughters and younger children, maybe, as singers.

One of the earliest and most enigmatic of Christian texts, the Apostolic Tradition, allocates the singing of psalms to “the children and the virgins,” and two centuries later Saint Jerome advised “adolescents and others charged to sing in church” against vain display or the use of throat medicines to enhance their tone. The youthfulness and sexual innocence of sacred singers and readers of scripture emerges as something of a theme in the early chapters of the book. Page’s own groundbreaking exploration of the funeral epitaphs of early Christian lectors, or readers—the lowly order of ministry that, as he demonstrates, included the singers—reveals that the average age of lectors who died before reaching adulthood was just fifteen, suggesting a generally youthful constituency.

The epitaph of Pope Liberius, who died in 366, related that he was a lector while still a boy possessed of infantia simplex, “childish innocence.” When the clergy of Carthage were exiled in 484, the banished lectors included many infantuli, little children, or, perhaps more accurately, “tiny tots.” African church legislation from the fourth century stipulated that lectors should read (and chant) the scriptures only till they reached puberty. There was more involved here than their voices breaking: ritual purity was at stake. Lectors might remain in office if they undertook a chaste (i.e., sexless) marriage. In some places that might mean that the singing of sacred texts was limited to the clergy from deacons upward, who at least in theory were vowed to celibacy.

Page, a singer himself, returns time and again to the marginal status of singers on the lowliest rung of the ladder of Christian ministry, alongside the gravediggers and porters. Nevertheless, by the fourth century Roman deacons, routinely equated with the biblical order of Levites, feature often in the epigraphic record as accomplished singers of liturgical psalmody. So the fourth-century deacon Redemptus, buried in the catacomb of Callistus on the Appia Antica outside Rome, is said to have “put forth sweet honey with nectared singing, celebrating the ancient prophet with sweet music.” Pope Gregory the Great, however, thought that in a civilization threatened by barbarians and on the verge of extinction, deacons had or should have better uses for their time than cultivating a blanda vox, a dulcet voice, and in 595 he suppressed this musical tradition among the Roman clergy. Singing deacons would however continue to feature prominently in the worship of the churches of Gaul and Vandal Africa.

African Christianity was doomed by the rise of Islam. But the shift of the center of gravity of Latin Christianity into Gaul and the rest of barbarian Europe brought profound musical changes. Early Christian congregations sang, often in the form of sometimes elaborate responsorial psalms, chanted antiphonally with the clergy, solo and chorus. But as the vocabulary and pronunciation of Latin evolved into the emergent Romance languages, and in the Germanic world where Latin had never been anyone’s first language, a gulf was opening between the language of liturgy and the language of daily life: congregational singing, Page thinks, was one of the casualties.

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