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.
Though congregations in former Roman provinces might retain a passive grasp of the language of worship well into the eighth and ninth centuries, they would not be able to speak or sing it, for liturgical Latin proved doggedly conservative and resistant to change. Liturgical elaboration also played its part. By the fifth and sixth centuries everywhere the clergy were formulating set courses of psalms and readings for the liturgical seasons and feasts, and special and often elaborate melodies were emerging for these “proper” chants. The specialist office of cantor is firmly entrenched in Latin church sources by the later fifth century.
In the centuries that followed, the training of these professional liturgical singers in cathedrals and monastic centers became increasingly demanding, requiring, among other skills, not only literacy in the Latin Bible but prodigious feats of memory. Page cites a seventh-century miracle story from southern Gaul, about a mean trick played on Praiectus, a novice cantor in the song school at Clermont. Malicious clerics tried to humiliate the boy by demanding that he sing a long and elaborate chant that his older classmates had been taught, but that he had never heard. Invoking the miraculous aid of a local saint, Praiectus performed the chant flawlessly.
In all this, the liturgy of Rome had a special prestige, and Page offers a long and fascinating exploration of the training of Rome’s ritual singers up to the ninth century. The earliest history of the Roman schola cantorum is poorly documented, but Page persuasively argues for the long, slow emergence of the Roman song schools on Byzantine patterns, around charitable institutions like hospitals and, especially, orphanages, which eventually functioned as recruiting grounds for the clergy. He rejects the idea, proposed by the late James McKinnon, that the relatively sudden emergence of the Roman schola cantorum in the late seventh century produced a new sense of corporate identity among the Roman singers and set off a drastic overhaul of the texts and chants used in the liturgy, the so-called “Advent project,” which then became the core of subsequent liturgical development in the Frankish territories and beyond.* Liturgy, Page argues, is a profoundly traditional activity, which advances by accretion rather than in revolutions engineered by professionals, and singers in any case did not have the prestige or standing necessary to push through drastic changes to traditional forms of worship: “Ritual singing was simply too important to be left to ritual singers.”
In the kingdoms of the barbarian West, too, song schools were never just academies for singers. The Latin literacy, expertise in sacred texts, and many other skills a singer needed were a good training for future service to king and church. In Merovingian and Carolingian Europe, the singers attached to the palatine chapels of Christian kings, those “little Constantines,” provided a pool of talent and a training ground for future abbots and bishops. Romanitas, the sense of a link backward to the imperial past, had a profound imaginative pull—and political value—for the rulers of the new kingdoms. The Catholic liturgy itself, with its exotic materials—the antique Latin of the chants and prayers, the silk and linen of the ministerial vestments, the ivory, jewels, and precious metals of the sacred vessels, the incense and wine used in the ceremonies of the mass—tied even the bleakest and most impoverished northern Christian outpost to the glamour and lavishness of the Mediterranean south.
And the tug of the Mediterranean was strongest at Rome. Though “the city contracted in the sixth and seventh centuries around a densely impacted coop of tombs and hollowed altars where innumerable relics of the Roman saints and martyrs were kept,” it continued to fascinate and elicit the imitation of the other churches of the West. Rome was the seat of the papacy and the “threshold of the Apostles,” of course. But it was also the source of what the seventh-century Northumbrian monk and scholar the Venerable Bede called “spiritual merchandise.” Rome was where northern bishops like Wilfred or abbots like Benedict Biscop came to find the icons, silks, and illuminated books needed for what Page calls “the rich materialism of Christian rites.” And the liturgy of Rome, its saints, feast days, prayers, and liturgical chanting, seemed to the increasingly confident churches of Europe the touchstone of authentic Christianity. So the Englishman Biscop would dedicate the monasteries he established at Jarrow and Monkwearmouth to Rome’s patron saints, Peter and Paul, and he persuaded John, archchanter of St. Peter’s Basilica, to come to rain-soaked Tyneside to teach his English monks to sing the psalms in the authentic Roman manner.
Roman sacred song became the cement of emergent European Christian identities. When Pope Stephen II crossed the Alps in 753 to seek the protection of the Frankish King Pippin against the Lombards, his retinue included expert liturgical singers. When he returned to Rome, he left some of them behind to teach the Frankish clergy at Metz the texts and melodies of the liturgy as it was performed in Rome. This was the genesis of the most significant liturgical project of the Middle Ages, the creation of a Romano-Frankish liturgy by overhauling the Frankish books to bring them closer to the usages of Rome, “for the sake of unanimity with the Apostolic See and the peaceful harmony of God’s Holy Church.” Pippin the Short would mobilize this project to advance his own claims to be the heir of the Christian Imperium of late antiquity: in the longer term this new liturgical hybrid would crystallize into the Mass and office that, in its essentials, Roman Catholics continued to celebrate down to the 1960s.
Though he does full justice to the glamour that Rome and its worship exerted over Pippin and his successor Charlemagne, Page is also at pains to emphasize a decidedly critical edge to Frankish appropriation of Roman models. The Frankish churches believed that they were improving as well as appropriating the Roman past. Frankish clergy were intensely conscious that they adorned with jewels the bones of the saints whom pagan Rome had butchered, and they did not hesitate to remind their Roman brethren that the relics of the martyrs now treasured by the Franks had been rescued from “neglected sepulchres” in Rome. There was no question, therefore, of the simple wholesale replacement of Gallican liturgical forms and music by Roman. Local pride and a sense of the Frankish realm’s divinely appointed destiny ensured that Franco-Roman chant would be significantly different from its Roman as well as from its Frankish prototypes.
Historians have tended to see Pippin’s promotion of the Romanization of the Frankish liturgy as a move to consolidate the political unity of Gaul. Page dismisses this notion as anachronistic. Though both Pippin and Charlemagne certainly saw the liturgy as underpinning their claims to Imperium, there could be no question of the sudden or comprehensive imposition of a single set of liturgical norms for the whole of their realms. The new liturgy and its music spread slowly, through networks of affinity, kinship, and political and religious alliance.
Bishop Remidius of Rouen, who imported the Roman singer Simeon to establish a Roman-style schola cantorum there, was Pippin’s half-brother, and such links characterize the early spread of the Franco-Roman liturgy. Page devotes considerable attention to Simeon’s work at Rouen, drawing on recent archaeological discoveries in the cathedral to suggest that Simeon’s song school may even have been physically modeled on a similar building and schola patronized by Gregory the Great in Rome. He also speculates that this “Roman” singer was in fact of Byzantine origin, and therefore spoke and sang in a Greek-inflected Latin that would have created special linguistic difficulties for his Frankish hearers, a fact that Page thinks might have affected both his teaching and their reception of the Roman chants.
Webs of kindred and affinity, including the prayer networks of monastic families, were vital to the spread of the new liturgy and its music. The abbot of a minor monastery might write to his colleague in a more prestigious institution, begging the loan of an expert cantor to train his monks in the authentic “Roman” chant. The consolidation of a common liturgy across a region might therefore depend on the arrival in some outpost of a single monk musician, unpacking his saddlebags and getting down to coaching unfamiliar novices.
Page is at pains to emphasize the local dimension of liturgical composition as well as transmission. The attention of historians of music has tended to focus on the elaboration of the major chants of the liturgy as the key to the evolution of sacred music in this period. Page’s trawl through the sources for named composers of chant in the centuries on either side of Guido’s breakthrough in the 1020s suggests, however, that the major focus for musical innovation was in fact on the generation of local liturgies for the feasts of local saints. He assembles an impressive list of more than fifty named medieval composers of chant. It emerges from his analysis of this list that most of these men poured their creativity into the antiphons and chants for the offices of regional shrines: they were “scholars in the service of the saints.”
Given the central importance of the saints for the identity and prestige of the institutions that housed their relics, this musical focus on their cults is perhaps not so surprising. The chants created by these mainly monastic composers were often essentially, therefore, in Page’s words, “a hymn to a landowner from his tenants.” And that perception is yet another testimony to the vital importance of locality for cultural formation in the Middle Ages.
Page’s book is an astonishingly rich study, covering a huge chronological range and drawing on a wealth of familiar and unfamiliar sources that are usually parceled out among scholars of different periods and separate disciplines. Its thousand-year compass, its geographical spread, and the many languages of its sources will elicit both admiration and the sniping of exasperated specialists. Not all of this book’s speculations will convince—as when Page elaborates on the difficulties created at Rouen by Simeon of Rome’s Greek pronunciation, a scenario apparently extrapolated from little more than Simeon’s name. And the very breadth and adventurousness of Page’s scholarship have no doubt taken him at times beyond his expertise. But once or twice in a generation a book comes along that crosses disciplinary boundaries to make unexpected connections, open up new imaginative vistas, and refocus what had seemed familiar historical landscapes. Christopher Page’s musician’s-eye view of the evolution of Western Christendom is one of those books.