25 June 2007

Ruminations inspired by the Solemnity of St John Baptist

Let me tell you two stories. Both were inspired by yesterday's solemnity, one more directly than the other, and both have to do with how the Church has sought at times to solve its problems, and in so doing changed everything.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of singing the Vespers hymn for st John Baptist, a piece called Ut Queant Laxis. It is quite possibly the most important piece in the history of music in terms of its effect on what was to come. It goes like this:

About a thousand years ago the Church was facing a crisis. This is of course nothing new: the Church is always facing some sort of crisis. This one had to do with music.

For the first millenium of the Church's history composers had been creating music to go with every part of the Mass, along with the divine office, and general hymns of praise, and so on. The total of music was immense, and every last bit of it was in danger of being lost forever because no one could write it down. As St Isadore of Seville put it: "Unless sounds are remembered, they perish, for they cannot be written down." Early attempts at write music at that time consisted of arrow-like markings over the words, indicating if the pitch went up or down. However, such markings were mnemonic devices, aimed at helping someone who already knew the piece remember how it went. It would not have been possible for someone to pick up a piece so marked and sing it from the page.

Enter the hero of our story, benedictine monk Guido d'Arezzo. Our hero was in charge of teaching music to the young monks in his monastery. While teaching them our hymn to St. John Baptist, he noticed that each line began on a successive note:

Ut queant laxis
re-sonare fibris:
mi-ra gestorum
fa-muli tuorum:
sol-ve polluti
la-bii reatus:
Sancte Ioannes

If you take the first syllables on which those ascending notes appeared you have Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la, and si... If you were to change the "ut" to "do" (pronounced as in "a deer"- a female deer) and "si" to "ti" (as in the drink, goes well with jam and bread, so I'm told, I don't like jam) you have something familiar to us all. What Guido had done was give the notes names, and names can be written down. The issue was how.

Eventually the solution he arrived at was to draw four lines over the words, and mark one line either as "ut" or as "fa" and indicate the notes with square dots placed on the line or space over the word, thus indicating that word's pitch. And thus the first modern music notation was born.

He also created a method of teaching singers still used today, wherein singers are trained to sing the intervals by having the singers sing the notes out of order, rather like Julie Andrews in Sound of Music, where she teaches them, as Guido did, first the names of the notes, and them how to move between them "so, do, la, fa, mi, re, do- when you know the notes to sing." And his students could now sing most anything.

The immediate reaction was that Guido got fired by his bishop, who was upset that Guido turned novices into professional singers. But another bishop of another diocese was quite happy to have professional singers, and brought Guido to his place, where he encouraged Guido to write a book on his method. His book, the Micrologus, came to the attention of the pope, who summoned Guido to Rome to explain and demonstrate his new method. Guido did as told, and the pope, after seeing the method demonstrated, almost immediately ordered all monasteries to adopt Guido's methods and set down their music. And thus the crisis was ended.

But Guido's invention stretched far beyond the preservation of Chant. All the music that exists in the West today, whether Polyphony, or Baroque, or Classical, Romantic, Jazz and so on, exists because it could be written down by one writer, and handed over to musicians who could then faithfully reproduce what they saw on the page. And for that, we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to a simple Benedictine monk, who was simply trying to teach his novices to sing.

The other story has to do with why we celebrated St John Baptist day yesterday. June 24 only falls on a Sunday every six to thirteen years. The reason why it does is because of the nature of our calendar, the Gregorian calendar. That calendar was created by the Church, and doing that kicked off an even bigger revolution than Guido...

About five hundred years ago, the Church faced a crisis. This time, scholars had noticed that the old Julian Calendar was slipping out of sync with the seasons, and were concerned that the high holy days would be celebrated at the wrong time of year.

The calendar was also to be kept in sync by a celestial observation that could only be made once every three hundred or so years. Unfortunately, on the night that one observation could be made the sky was cloudy. Now they were really in a pickle.

The Church turned to a monk whose first name was Nicholas, who was a polymath and had done some work on astronomy, to look into the matter, and see if some other way of observing could be made. Nicholas looked into the matter, and examined the old ptolemaic geo-centric model of the universe. That model, which worked well at first for the Greeks and Romans, worked less well as time passed. Every time some new observation was made, some alteration had to be made to the system, and new cycles and epicycles were added. As more observations of the stars and planets were made, the complications increased. Nicholas examined the system, and decided to change everything, and in so doing, changed everything. Nicholas Copernicus' book, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) placed the sun a the center of everything, and kicked off a revolution the likes of which the world had never seen.

It made calendar reform a snap, just to begin with. Contrary to much popular thought, the Church was not against the book at first, and made good use of it for much of the next century. One the of the first to cry out against him was actually Martin Luther, who is said to have exclaimed: "The fool wants to turn the science of astronomy upside down!" Copernicus did exactly that, and in so doing, he set it free.

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