The Effort to Unify the Chant circa 1100

We don’t often think about the generation of musicians that followed Guido d’Arezzo. I hadn’t really considered what Guido’s life and work meant for their own tasks. They were charged with using Guido’s fantastic innovation — the system of reading pitches on a staff — to create books of chant in cathedrals and monasteries. This entire generation is discussed in detail in Christopher Page’s marvelously interesting book The Christian West and Its Singers (2010).

While reading I conjured mental images of zealous young monks, heads filled with wonder at the newest thing, the newest innovation in science, the 12th century iPhone perhaps, and carefully copying down chants as older monks sang them, one note at a time. “Wait just a moment…was that a Ti or a Ta?” The older monks must have had serious doubts! Of course the zealots discovered rather large variations in the chant from place to place, and this surely included rhythm too. They sought to use the new tool to unify and universalize.

One author known only as John wrote the following complaint in his De Musica sometime after 1100. He offers a passage that struck me as hilarious. Three singers are comparing chant editions and here is what happens:

One says, “Master Trudo taught me this way.” Another rejoins, “But I learned it like this from master Albinus”; and to this a third remarks, “Master Salomon certainly sings differently.” … rarely, therefore, do three man agree about one chant. Since each men prefers his own teacher, there arise as many variations in chanting as there are teachers in this world.” (p. 467).

So interesting, isn’t it? This was the situation that the Guidoian innovation was supposed to rectify, and surely it did settle many questions to some large extent. And yet the above conversation might have happened last week at the Sacred Music Colloquium. They go on every day – and we hope we can learn from each other rather than fight with each other. However, it remains true to a large extent, even 1000 years later: there are as many variations as there are teachers!

And, by the way, there is nothing particularly wrong with this. At the Colloquium, we experienced Mass with four different chant choirs in the same Mass, led by four different conductors. At the same Mass, we heard: precise and pious, rich and strong, elegant and polished,  stable and settling, each with a different approach.

The reason is fairly obvious actually: despite the enthusiasm of the post-Guido generation, print manuscripts with staffs don’t actually sing themselves. As usual with every innovation, that generation exaggerated the benefit of the new thing. Chant must come from human beings, not machines, and thank goodness. No edition can capture every subtlety, every nuance, every interpretation. Nor do I think we want it to. Variation and difference are lovely. This is not a matter of doctrine; it is a matter of application and art.

Does anyone doubt that the same arguments will be going on 1000 years from now?

When I read this passage to William Mahrt on the phone, and offer the above sentence, he replied profoundly: “and how wonderful it is to know that they will still be singing these chants 1000 years from now.”

Of what other music, of what other art, can the same be said?

One Reply to “The Effort to Unify the Chant circa 1100”

  1. Wonderful post, Jeffrey.

    "No edition can capture every subtlety, every nuance, every interpretation."

    Even a thousand years after Guido, we still don't have a system of notation that records every detail of a musical performance–even in the most modern idioms and notational systems there is still always interpretation involved. Any system of notation that claims to capture everything will undoubtedly end up with interpretations that are lifeless and mechanistic. This is what is so wonderful about Gregorian chant, I think–it wasn't written down until long after it was a highly developed art form. We can try our best to sing it with "historical authenticity" but in the end it comes down to an inspired interpretation, without which we don't really have "music".

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