The Guido We Never Knew

The most influential musician of the last one thousand years was Guido d’Arezzo who lived in the first half of the 11th century and gave us the lined musical staff, surely the greatest musical innovation of all time. His four treatises on music were studied in great detail throughout the middle ages. If music had its own “industrial revolution,” its own period of enlightenment, Guido is surely the instigator and guide. Christopher Page’s treatise The Christian West and Its Singers: The First One Thousand Years rightly offers a massive and complete chapter on his life and influence – beautifully written and inspiring on every page.

But there is also what struck me as a blockbuster revelation buried here. I’ll just quote Page directly: “Guido is commonly regarded today as the author of four works all of them musical tracts, whereas his legacy almost certainly runs to five treatises, the last being devoted a sharply different matter, or so modern habits of thought make it seem. To be fair, the abundant transmission of Guido’s musical works gives no clue to the existence of this extra item, which is a trenchant letter on the subject of simony (the sale or purchase of ecclesiastical offices) addressed to one of the most exalted ecclesiastics in Italy…”

This was complete news to me. Guido, it turns out, was not just a musical innovator. He was a passionate advocate of purifying the life of the monastery and the Church in general. In fact, this is precisely was motivated his effort to make it possible to transmit the chant from place to place and time to time without the need of a teacher. He wanted to free the monks from endless studies of music, under the control of a single master, in order that they could have more time to purify their spiritual lives. It was the same motivation behind his campaign to end the trafficking in the Holy Spirit: the free the Church of contact with the bribes and fees associated with the offices and rituals of the pagan temples.

The book is called Epistola Widonis. In it, Guido says that simony “pollutes the chastity of Holy Church with a disgusting contagion.” He notes how Jesus threw the money changers out of the temple, how Dathan and Abiron were swallowed up by the ground for soliciting the governance of the priesthood, and how St. Peter put Simon Magus under perpetual anathema.

Guido writes:

It is excessively shameful that the Church should now, in its fullest vigour, succumb to such a bestial enemy that it had the power to conquer it its infancy with such strength…. who cannot see that the Masses and prayers of such prelates or priests [guilty of simony] will bring the wrath of Gold up on the people and not placate him in the way we believe such observances can do? For it is written: ‘Whatsoever is not of faith is sin’ … When, therefore, do we shuns such bishops, abbots, clerics, and others if we hear the Masses of those, and pray with those, with whom we take excommunication upon ourselves? Just to believe such men to be priests is to go entirely astray, as Peter said to Simon Magus: “Thy money perish with thee, because thou has thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money.”

Apparently, his treatise was highly influential and led to and was certainly central to major reforms that permitted the lowliest person to hold the powerful accountable for the sin of simony, which Guido believed to be pervasive in his time. The Catholic Church had to take a stand that the graces of its sacraments, the offices and rites of its holy spaces, were not to be subject to bribes and payments. And certainly there can be no question that Guido was very serious about this subject. He had already shown himself to be made of strong character, having endured exile from his own monastery, apparently over the innovations in music that led to his fame, and having finally gained an audience with the Pope to seek vindication (which he finally received).

Just how “sharply different” were the matters of music and simony in his time? It is hard to say. There was no printing, so no opportunity for anyone to claim private ownership over the text of the Mass, the Psalms, or the chant. No one would have done so. The institution we call copyright – that government-granted privilege to a single author and its contracted publisher – was unknown in his time. Yes, there was private ownership over the chant books themselves, and they were highly guarded and protected as nearly priceless. But the contents, the melodies, the words? It would have been unthinkable for anyone to claim to own those and seek payment for permission to pray or sing their contents.

But let us imagine that someone had, in Guido’s time, done so. In light of his views of how simony is the despoiler of the chastity of the Church, what might he have said? He stood up in his time against very powerful interests, even offering the sweeping judgement that many bishops and priests of his time were tainted with the sin of simony. He would surely have had strong words for those who would attempt to privatize the liturgy and proceed to profiteer from a restrictive legal status.  

Today, the institutions of copyright and royalties, exclusive use and fees, payments and contracts with authors and publishers, war chests of “intellectual propersy rights” held by favored publishers, are all the norm. Musicians are highly dependent on these systems. Parishes believe that they cannot participate in the life of the faith without subscribing to “rights management” software sold by private companies. Parishes are even told to destroy last year’s readings booklets because their rights to use them have expired. This system, which is not a purely private system but one that makes use of government regulations, was first used by Christians little more than a century ago. Today it is taken for granted and these “rights” are bought and sold as if this is merely part of the professionalization of publishing and the legitimization of Catholic musical life.

And yet: there is another way. There is publishing into the commons, precisely as Guido’s own books were published. This does not mean the end of property. All things that are real physical things remain property. But what is infinitely reproducable belongs to everyone. Nor does it mean the end of commerce. There are still legitimate profits to be made by selling goods and books and liturgical items. What needs to come to an end is the selling of what should belong to all, those things of the Holy Spirit such as the texts of Mass, the text of the Psalms, the music of worship, the words that make up the liturgy. What need to be subjected to commercial restriction should not be restricted.

It is strange and fascinating to me to discover this side of  Guido. A musician friend of mine suggests that we ask for his intercession to lead us out of the problems of our own time with the buying and selling of that which ought to be free gifts to all the faithful.