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The West finds its Voice: the Western musical tradition of trained and professional performers, conductors and composers can trace its origins to the forms of Christian worship that developed in Europe during the first millennium.


When a string quartet gives a recital, perhaps featuring works that many in the audience regard as masterpieces of Western musical art, the sounds are produced with a basic raw material familiar to the Asian nomad. Horsehair momentarily brings the world of skin tents and mares' milk into conjunction with Beethoven's sublime late quartets. So, in emphasising the importance of Christian worship to the development of Western music, we are not ignoring the geographical origins of that music's materials: Christian singing began in Asia after all. Nor are we suggesting that Western music developed in an ethnic or cultural enclosure. However, to place the emphasis on Christian ritual musicianship--which seems to mean singers alone for most of the first millennium--is certainly to suggest that the tradition of Western music, the concept of a composer and indeed the very idea of musicians who deserve esteem for their knowledge and practical skill, is an invention of Christianity in its first thousand years.


To Roman gentlemen like the Christian philosopher Boethius (c. 480-524/5), deeply versed in the musical traditions of the ancient Greeks, skilled instrumentalists and singers seemed servile, no doubt because many of those who provided vocal or instrumental music in the Roman world, especially in a domestic context, were indeed slaves. At that time, the true musician, or musicus, confined himself to theory and criticism--no more thinking to sully his hands with a musical instrument in public than to foul them with potter's clay in a workshop. Such true musicians knew that 'Heard melodies are sweet but those unheard are sweeter', in the words of John Keats. Most lovers of music, I suspect, will recognise what Keats intends and what Boethius believed; there is always a sense in which the music we love exists most truly in the mind, lifted above the contingencies and disappointments of a specific performance.


In the late Roman Empire, however, the daily work of liturgical singers was necessary for maintaining the cult of a state and papal faith imposed by law. By around 400 the ceremony of Christian liturgy with its silk, linen, incense and precious metals reflected the material luxuries of power in an empire that still had extensive trading routes where Europe, Asia and Africa hinge together. There was a romanitas here that became vital to the essentially Romano-barbarian institution of kingship that was the new political order of the West. As men formerly acknowledged by Roman constitutional titles like patricius either vanished or gradually turned into territorial kings, a ruler like Clovis (c. 466-511), king of the Franks, might eventually find little reason to continue resisting any pressure from his bishops to accept Christianity (not necessarily in its Catholic form, although that is what Clovis chose). The kings offered a sub-Roman court to their lay magnates and bishops, valuable advisers in most things. To have capable singers in the great churches of the realm gave a Roman, quasi-imperial profile to a king's authority as surely as any coins he struck in imitation of Byzantine originals.

Much of the best evidence for the work of the early-medieval singers is Frankish. The second generation of Christian kings in Francia certainly had one monarch seeking a gifted singer for his court and church: Theuderic (c. 485-533), a son of Clovis. Whether he resided in Cologne, Reims or Trier, Theuderic expected to enjoy dishes cooked with olive oil, pepper, ginger and cloves brought up from Marseille (a culinary manual addressed to him still survives) and he recognised that to hold Roman state in this way and to commandeer the old palaces as he did at Trier inevitably entailed the maintenance of the Roman Catholic religion that his converted subjects espoused. Theuderic therefore decided that he should recruit clergy in southern Gaul where his father had given him extensive duties. One of those who eventually served him was a young man named Gallus, from an excellent Gallo-Roman family, a fixture bishop of Clermont and the uncle of the historian Gregory of Tours, to whom we owe an account of Gallus's career. As a young monk at the abbey of Cournon in the Auvergne, Gallus displayed 'a voice of wonderful sweetness with a delicious melodiousness,' at least according to Gregory. When Bishop Quintianus of Clermont heard him sing there he recognised that such a man should be nurtured and taught at the cathedral. On the death of Quintianus, King Theuderic took matters in hand, for Gallus's 'voice was becoming more and more perfect with each day'. Neither Theuderic nor his queen could let him remain away from court for very long and he was kept with the royal family at Cologne. So here was a well-educated and talented Christian singer of exalted social rank in the 520s. Not so long before, Boethius had implicitly denied that such a musician could exist.

From Visigothic Spain, ruled by Catholic kings from the late 580s, comes an exceptional insight into the status and schooling of liturgical singers. This is provided by a substantial Latin poem, known as the Admonition to a Cantor, which conveys a clear sense of the soloist of the choir as a supported and trained professional. It also expresses a remarkably developed sense of what might be called the ethical demands of the singer's calling. The poet addresses the reader as 'doctor' in the first line, implying advanced learning. Nonetheless, the cantor must learn the 'gift of humility' and understand the difference between pleasing human as opposed to divine ears. Cantors should not be carried away with the 'vain human plaudits' that the poet mercilessly calls 'poisonous human praise, drawing the soul into the terrible fires of hell'.


Yet, despite the necessary appeal to the ear of God, there is a strong sense in the poem of a listening congregation, indeed of an audience. Its members are placed 'at a distance', but they are also 'those standing by' and even 'the listeners'. Most dangerous for the cantor, they may also be 'admirers'. The cantor should sing with a contrite heart and with a voice that accords with his inner disposition, for that is how he will inspire compunction in others. (In this poem, as in other writings from Visigothic Spain, it is the affective power of music that makes it an art to fear and to admire in equal measure.)

The process of schooling singers comes into view with the poet's requirement that the cantor, now envisaged as the leader of a group, or at least as a teacher, has an obligation to instruct promising pupils and indeed to recruit them by seeking among his friends and colleagues those who can sing well. This would make little sense in an enclosed monastic context and therefore implies a cathedral community or at least a church of substance. The reserve that a good cantor should possess--the sense of liturgical decorum, in effect--reaches outwards in this poem to a comprehensive ethic for liturgical singers. They must be without guile and men of good reputation, always behaving with rectitude and measure. This is an unexpectedly ambitious combination, in this context, of Christian humility with Senecan ideals of moderation and temperamentum.

While their kingdom lasted, the Visigothic kings and their bishops managed from the late 580s to pursue vigorous liturgical reforms with slight regard for Roman models. That was indeed a mark of confidence. Elsewhere, those on a distant or politically troubled edge of the Christian world looked a good deal more often to the Roman lighthouse for guidance. Between the sixth and eighth centuries, actively Romanising work can be traced at Braga and Kildare, Wearmouth-Jarrow, Naples and Regensburg. In various ways, all these places were political or religious outposts. Some were both and singers sometimes travelled considerable distances to advance the work being done. But the most significant case takes us to the political centre and not to a periphery.

Once more, this is a Frankish story. In 753 Pope Stephen II turned to Pippin, the first Carolingian king of the Franks, for protection against the depredations of the Lombards in Italy. In the next year the pope came to the vast plains of Champagne--the first Vicar of St Peter ever to cross the Alps--and met Pippin at his palace farm of Ponthion, today a bleak hamlet near Vitry-le-Francois in the Marne. According to the biography of Pope Stephen in the Liber pontificalis, the Frankish king and the pontiff established 'treaties of peace', pacis foedera, and these agreements were to have long-term consequences for singers and their art.

The importance of this Frankish-papal alliance has often been exaggerated, notably by arguing that papal Italy was involved in some kind of political separatism, carving a new state ('the Republic of Saint Peter') from the Byzantine duchy of Rome. Yet Pippin's meeting with Pope Stephen does belong with events--continuing into the reign of Charlemagne--that invite an interpretation in large-scale geopolitical terms that emphasises contacts and communication. The Frankish-papal alliance was one stage in the process whereby Rome ceased to lie on the western edge of an increasingly Asian Byzantium and became the eastern edge of Latin Christendom, where the Bishop of Rome was the only legal patriarch. The repertoire for liturgical singers that musicologists today call 'Frankish-Roman' plainsong, but which most people know as Gregorian chant, has its ultimate origin in the work of Frankish singers in the later 700s making what they could of Roman example. The sheer quality of that chant and the depth to which it has penetrated the Western musical sensibility during more than a millennium, both invite large claims. It is the music of a transalpine Europe recovering after many decades when north-south contacts declined to an all-time low, when the crucial port of Marseille was acquiring new buildings of only the lowest quality, when Bede regarded a few grains of pepper as a luxury and when the evidence of wrecks in the Western Mediterranean (for what it may be worth) dwindles to almost nothing and suggests a largely empty sea.

By some time in the 760s, a Roman singer can be traced teaching the 'music of psalmody' to his Frankish counterparts at the cathedral of Rouen. This visiting professor of plainchant, a Greek or 'Syrian' named Simeon, was the second in command of the principal Roman choral body, the schola cantorum, and if one seeks the origins of a truly European music--the music of a transalpine and peninsular Europe--then they might be said to lie here. One would give much to know what this Roman teacher and his Frankish pupils made of one another; they had been bred in radically different dietary zones, within dramatically different ecologies and perhaps entertained sharply different constructions of Roman and barbarian roles in the events of late--imperial history in the West. One would give still more to know what Pippin and his Franks were trying to achieve in musical terms by bringing a Roman singer so far from home. No trace has yet been found of any Western musical notation in use during the 700s, so Frankish dealings with Roman chant at Rouen and elsewhere, whatever they were, must have been essentially empirical. In addition to the Roman elocution of Latin and formulae for intoning psalms, the Rouen singers were presumably trying to learn a corpus of Roman musical entities--melodies--so that they could reproduce them in a manner that their teacher would judge to be satisfactory, or at least adequate. The sounds of the Roman music were presumably held before Frankish ears, so to speak, to produce a human archive that was liable to be undermined by forgetfulness, caprice and mortality. The material in this archive was not only evanescent, it was also unverifiable in specifically musical terms save when the Frankish singers had a chance to check their repertoire against Roman originals, which may not have been very often.



One should not rush to assume that Pippin--in the eyes of some Frankish families a usurper who had taken the throne from a legitimate Merovingian--was seeking to establish political unity in his kingdom by a liturgical reform. If this was indeed a political step on his part, then it should be placed in an eighth-century context. The 'political unity of Gaul' seems unlikely to have been the motive impelling either Pippin or Charlemagne to charge the singers of certain churches to follow Roman usage in any regard. Pippin's greatest asset was his sense of the forces at play as the support of his royal heartland diminished towards its troubled periphery. He would have been poorly informed indeed if he supposed that a design to impose the Roman rite could succeed against the grain of so many local interests or in spite of the practical difficulties it would encounter. Romanised liturgical books and calendars would be required in vast numbers and monks and clergy would have to be persuaded, perhaps against the interests of local cults, to learn a new ritual during years of upheaval when their liturgy was neither the old Gallican nor the new Roman.

In contrast, the king could probably hope to accomplish much with the singers who helped celebrate masses for him as chaplains and who carried his most precious relics when he travelled. This is the old model, in other words, of a barbarian king seeking a liturgy of Roman opulence, ancestry and depth. Pippin could also look to the churches governed by his relatives or especially trusted servants. This is probably where we should look for the horizon of his ambitions, for, in a sense, the Frankish work with Roman singing was a family matter from the start. Paul I, the pope who sent Simeon, the Roman songmaster, to teach Franks at Rouen, was the brother of Pope Stephen II with whom Pippin had negotiated at Ponthion in 754. The Rouen prelate at the time of the introduction of the new ritual was Remedius and he was Pippin's half-brother. The documents that definitively reveal Pippin's involvement in liturgical and musical initiatives from the 760s therefore show two powerful kindred performing services for one another through a pair of brothers.


When, from c. 900, Gregorian plainsong begins to appear in relatively systematic and consolidated manuscripts with musical notation, the measure of agreement between widely dispersed sources can be so impressive it seems that Carolingian singers must have been involved in the creation, preservation and dissemination of a canonical repertory: a body of melodies whose fitness for their ritual purpose was deemed to lie in the fact that they were perceived to be essentially the same (or at least essentially stable) from one performance to the next. This is another fundamental contribution of the early-medieval singer: the notion of a husbanded and carefully transmitted musical entity.

Why have such music at all? The answer may lie with the 'treaties of peace', mentioned above, that Pippin formed with Stephen II in 754. Charlemagne's great capitulary, the Admonitio generalis of 789, gives the sonorous explanation that Pippin undertook his work 'for the sake of unanimity with the Apostolic See and the peaceful harmony of God's Holy Church'. This is almost certainly language that Pippin and his advisers sponsored 30 years earlier in the 750s, as a careful reading of the Admonitio suggests. Although it is a substantial document, only two chapters mention Pippin by name. This first time is on canon number 80 and the other follows as canon 81. These back-to-back references to Pippin suggest that these two chapters may form a discrete layer within the Admonitio. Canon 81 forbids all labour on Sundays unless it serves the needs of the army, involves the movement of provisions or is necessary to carry a corpse to the grave; men are accordingly forbidden 'to cultivate the vines, plough the fields, reap or cut the hay' on the Lord's day while women must not 'engage in cloth working, sew, embroider, card wool, break flax, launder in public or shear sheep'. These provisions are so detailed they probably restate the terms of a lost capitulary issued by Pippin a generation earlier. This leaves open the possibility that the adjacent canon, concerning Pippin's reform of liturgy, also quotes from a lost act of conciliar legislation issued during his reign. If so, it is the only document in existence presenting the motives for the reform in language sponsored by Pippin himself and it is the Catholic theological language of peace. Occidental music owes much to an agreement made more than 1,200 years ago in an oratory that is only marked today by a rusting sign near an open field in Champagne.

As early as 838, Agobard of Lyons insisted that 'too many singers study from earliest youth until the hoariness of old age' to learn their chants; as a result they neglect 'readings and the study of divine eloquence: It would be easy to assume, on the basis of this complaint, that there was a 'need' for notation that scribes found a way to meet in a process that continued for centuries afterwards. Viewed in these terms, the Western tradition of art music appears to be a slow progress from an oral state to an increasingly advanced condition of musical literacy supporting the concept of the canonical masterwork deposited in notation. The term 'notation' in this context means essentially the device of writing music on the lines of a staff. It is well known that the Italian monk Guido of Mezzo invented this device in the first decades of the 11th century and even today the five-line staff in common use still perpetuates the range of 11 notes that medieval singers of Frankish-Roman chant could be called upon to supply. It is a deceptively simple device, for it is essentially a form of graph and one that has evidently been of cardinal importance to the development of Western music. No stave, no symphony.



Guido of Arezzo believed that singers were the 'most foolish' of men because they could only learn their chants by repeatedly listening to others sing them. For this, says Guido, even a lifetime of labour was not enough. Yet the invention of staff notation proves to be a more complex process than one might suppose and certainly more complex than a simple 'need' for notation. For a start, there is a sense in which Guido's system was not so much a staff notation as a space notation; he assigned meaning to the spaces between the lines as well as to the lines themselves, as in older practice. What is more, there never was any such stable entity as 'Guido's staff notation', only a bundle of graphic techniques that a single scribe might use in many different ways. Above all, the emergence of Guido's notation cannot be entirely explained in terms of internal pressure within the art and duties of the medieval singer.

Guido never intended that his method would allow singers to perform from notation during a service. His aim was to expedite the process of memorisation by giving novices a silent but secure teacher made of parchment to supplement their studies; thus the time taken to learn the music could be reduced, or so Guido claims, from a lifetime of study to 24 months. Guido was not only concerned with corrected chant (that is chant edited by Guido himself, according to his own lights) but also with the things a singer would be free to do if he were not constrained to learn or to teach chant by oral means. Thus Guido maintains that monks and clergy trained in his notation will have more time for prayer, for the recitation of Psalms, for nocturnal vigils and for the other duties they can perform cure puritate, 'with purity'.

That simple expression, which distills so much of the political and ecclesiastical history of the 11th century, is missing from one standard English translation of Guido's Epistola at Michahelem, thus effacing his meaning at precisely the point where his conceptions need the most careful attention because they cannot readily be mapped onto modern ones. Guido means that his new notation will give singers more time to deepen the quality of their spiritual life; they will have the means, if they are prepared to make the effort, to be cleansed from any temptation to simony (the buying and selling of ecclesiastical offices) and they will have more time to pray for freedom from the troubling dreams that sully the body in the hours of nocturnal prayer. The inventor of staff notation was not labouring to become the founder of Western music, though that in a sense is what he became. Instead, he was trying to give clergy and singers the means to pursue Christian lives at a high level of observance, continence and rectitude.

Further Reading Warren Babb (ed, C.V. Palisca), Hucbald, Guido and John on Music (Yale University Press, 1978); Kenneth Levy, Gregorian Chant and the Carolingions (Princeton UP, 1998); James McKinnon, The Temple, the Church Fathers and Early Western Chant (Variorum, 1998); Rosamund McKitterick, Charlemagne: The Formation of a European Identity (Cambridge UP, 2008); Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford U P, 2005).

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Christopher Page is Reader in Medieval Music and Literature at the University of Cambridge and Vice-Master of Sidney Sussex College. His book, The Christian West and its Singers: The First Thousand Years was published in April by Yale University Press.
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Title Annotation:Christian Singing
Author:Page, Christopher
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2010
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