The Christian West and Its Singers: The First Thousand Years
By Christopher Page
Yale, 692 Pages, $45
The pipe organ receives the highest praise in John Dryden’s poem “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day”: What human voice can reach / The sacred organ’s praise? / Notes inspiring holy love, / Notes that wing their heavenly ways / To mend the choirs above. Yet the organ, the instrument most closely associated with Christian worship in the West, did not come into general use until the end of the first millennium. In the early centuries, the instrument that was heard in the churches was the human voice, and the history of early Christian music is the story of the human voice glorifying God in song.
The first Christian music of which we have a record is a hymn, from the third century in praise of the Holy Trinity, discovered early in the twentieth century. The papyrus includes not only the Greek text of the hymn but rudimentary musical notations—alphabetical forms written above the line. That system of notation fell out of use, however, and for most of the first millennium melodies were handed on face-to-face. In the ninth and tenth centuries, Latin-speaking monks in northern Europe created a system of notation by which musical notes could be inscribed on a page of parchment and thereby remembered.
How this came about, and the role of singers in making it possible, is told in this learned, provocative, and lavishly illustrated book by Christopher Page, a musicologist and historian at Cambridge University. It is a fascinating story, and Page tells it with verve; he has an eye for arresting details and a compelling vision of the significance of Christian worship in the development of Western music. The “fountainhead of the western musical experience is Gregorian chant,” he writes at the outset. In his final chapter, “Singers in the Making of Europe,” he notes that the musical innovations of Benedictine monks in early medieval Europe prepared the way for developments in Western music that led to the passions of J.S. Bach and the string quartets of Beethven.
Although evidence from the first three centuries of Christianity is fragmentary, singing held an honorable place in Christian worship from the beginning. It was customary in Carthage, says Cyprian, to sing psalms at eventide to “beguile our ears with sweet religious strains.” In the context of early worship, there was an especially intimate relation between singing and reading. Ancient manuscripts were written in capital letters, without spaces between words and sentences and with no punctuation. To read publicly before an assembly was a skill possessed by only a few. In the first part of the Eucharist, when it came time for the reading of Scripture, a lector ascended the ambo, a small raised platform in the center of the church, to read aloud the lessons, including a psalm, to the congregation. By the fourth century, the psalm was sung as a liturgical element in its own right.
Once it was distinguished from the other readings, the sung psalm helped give form to the developing Christian liturgy. Sung portions and read portions were assigned to different persons in the ritual. In a way spoken words could not, words sung on pitch bound the community together and gave unity to their prayers. Music also intensified religious feeling, as the Spanish bishop Isidore of Seville recognized: “In melodies the divine words more readily and ardently stir our minds to piety when they are sung than when they are not.”
In time lectionaries, the fixed order of scriptural texts to be read on Sundays and festivals, took shape, expanding the musical repertory. The evolving complexity and variation required more extensive training for the siners, because without musical notation the only way melodies could be passed on was by memory reinforced through constant repetition. In the cathedral churches of large cities across the Christian world, singers, often boys and youths, were organized into a “college,” a schola cantorum, to provide music for the principal litugies.
Page has gathered, from all over the Latin-speaking world, an impressive body of documentation that brings to life the work of these singers. Inscriptions give us some of their names and shed light on how their singing was viewed. For example, we learn that a deacon in Rome named Redemptus “put forth sweet honey with nectared singing, celebrating the ancient prophet [David] with serene music.” Another, Sabinus, sang “with voice and art” in varied tones. These men were “not dutifully performing a modest function with indifferent results,” writes Page; they were gifted and accomplished musicians, adding beauty and splendor to Christian worship. But the bishops “were not inclined to give the singers too much status,” and, Page adds, “the long history of the Church’s ambivalent relation to its singers had begun.”
n the early medieval period, the new Christian kings in northern Europe took an interest in the music sung in their churches. Gregory of Tours, the historian of early France, tells this story of a council of bishops in Orleans, in Gaul. At the end of two days of celebration, the king invited the bishops to a festive banquet. After they dined, the king asked Gregory to have one of his deacons sing. When the singer finished, the king was so pleased that he commanded each bishop present to provide a deacon to sing before him. Gregory passed on the command, and “each sang a responsorial psalm to the best of his ability in the presence of the king.”
In the eighth century, when the Carolingian kings Pippin and Charlemagne made an alliance between their expanding kingdom in northern Europe and the pope in Rome, they began to introduce the Roman style of chant to the churches of the north. As Roman chant was appropriated and adapted by Frankish musicians, a common repertory of Latin plainchant took shape that eventually was adopted by other regions in Western Europe.
But the lack of notation made it difficult to transmit melodies and expand their use. In the ninth century, Frankish musicians put their minds to the task of creating a system of musical notation. Initially they used dots and squiggles placed above the text. Called neumes, from the Greek pneuma (“breath”), these marks sketched the general contour of the melody, rising or falling, without, however, measuring the interval. The neumes provided the novice with a visible trace of how the words were to be sung, but they served as an aid only for melodies that already were known by heart.
Over the next few generations, Frankish musicians began to experiment with a system of lines that could indicate pitch. The most significant theoreticians were two Benedictine monks, Hucbald, a Dutch musician and composer (d. 930), and Guido of Arezzo (d. 1050), who brought things brilliantly into focus with the invention of the staff (or stave): parallel lines running across the page with the spaces between the lines as well as the lines themselves indicating pitch. This was a revolution of the first order, and the invention of the staff made a profound impression on contemporaries.
Pope John XIX (1024–1032) heard of Guido’s work and invited him to Rome for consultation. In a letter to a fellow monk, Guido tells of the effect of his new method of musical notation. “John, of the highest apostolic seat, who now governs the Roman church, hearing the fame of our school and greatly marveling how, by means of our antiphoner [the book with the text and notations], boys might learn chants they had never heard,” was transfixed by the possibility of melody visible on the page. “The pope,” Guido continues, “frequently turning the pages of our antiphoner as if it were a marvel and studying the prefatory rules, did not leave that place or move from where he sat until he had learned one versicle he had never heard.”
Another monk, Rudolf, had a similar experience when he taught a group of singers using Guido’s system. “To the amazement of the senior monks he made them sing straight away, only by looking, with art and yet with a silent master, what they had never learned by hearing.”
For Guido and his contemporaries, the invention of the stave was a spiritual as well as a musical gift to those who sang. Monastic writers complained that it took years, “from youth to the hoariness of old age,” to learn the chants. Odo, abbot of Cluny, one of the great Benedictine monasteries, said that even the smallest antiphon cannot be learned “without the labor of a master,” and if it is forgotten “there is no way that we can recover our memory of it.” Guido hoped that the new notation would relieve the burdens on memory, allowing more time for prayer and deepening the spiritual life of the monks.
A subtheme in this rich book is the character of liturgical Latin. By the fifth and sixth centuries, spoken Latin was developing in the direction of the Romance languages. But in singing, every syllable counts, and words must be pronounced correctly. Even as everyday speech was changing, cantors, like lectors, had to be well schooled in correct Latin. Because the Latin in the plainsong manuscripts stood in a long tradition of conservative Latin elocution, only singers who knew Latin well could serve as cantors. The music of the liturgy became the province of professionals and, except for short responses, liturgical singing “left no place for the layman’s voice.”
The Christian West and Its Singers is a magnificent book, brimming with fresh insights and overflowing with unexpected pieces of information drawn from little-known sources and unpublished manuscripts. The development of musical notation in the ninth and tenth centuries is familiar to musicologists, but Page’s focus on singers and Christian worship in the development of Western music is fresh and original. The story is well told, so much so that it can be read with pleasure by anyone with an interest in Church history and Christian worship as well as the history of music.
Robert Louis Wilken, a member of the editorial and advisory board of First Things, is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity Emeritus at the University of Virginia.