Guido the Great

This essay is adapted from Jeffrey’s new book, Sing Like a Catholic.

The people who make modern inventions are often celebrated for improving our lives. But what about those one thousand years ago who laid the very technological foundation of civilization as we know it? They too served the world, but with the primary purpose of contributing to the faith. I’m thinking here of those who solved the architectural problem to build the great cathedrals of the middle ages, and the scientists of the period who took the first steps toward modern medical knowledge.

Also we don’t often consider the innovations in art that make all music possible. There is one person who stands out here: the late 10th and early 11th century Benedictine monk named Guido d’Arezzo (991/992—after 1033). He is credited with fantastic musical innovations that led to the creation of the modern system of notes and staffs, and also the organization of scales that allowed for teaching and writing music.

His contributions have usually been seen as technical innovations and evaluated as such, though known only inside a small circle of music historians. Without his contribution, the music you hear on your iPod and on the radio would not likely exist.

A new book by Angelo Rusconi, synopsized by Patrick Reynolds from the Italian, and appearing in Goldberg #46 (2007), offers a more complete picture of what drove Guido, and the results will be very exciting for anyone who seeks to understand how any serious innovation upsets the status quo, makes enemies, causes a bit of social upheaval, and ultimately makes the world a better place.

Consider the technical feat that Guido undertook. Imagine a world without printed music. How would you go about conveying a tune in printed form? It’s one thing to render words on paper in a way that others can read them. But what about sound? It floats in the air and resists having a physical presence at all.

How can you share the melody without singing it for them, by just writing things down? People had tried since the ancient world without success. Some attempts in the 8th and 9th centuries came a bit closer (but the results look like chicken scratch to us). It was Guido who made the breakthrough with lines and scales that illustrate for the eye what the voice is to sing, and precisely so. His innovation was a beautiful integration of art and science.

And what a remarkable innovation, if you think about it. From the beginning of time until his time, the teaching of music was done by a tiny and ever-arrogant cartel of masters. You had to sing exactly as they instructed you. If they weren’t around, you were stuck. They held the monopoly. To become a master of music, you had to study under one of the greats, and then receive the blessing to become a teacher yourself, and you know that they wanted to limit their numbers. One can imagine that you had to be sycophantic to even get your foot in the door.

Guido’s innovation busted up the cartel. Rusconi shows that Guido’s primary interest was in notating not just music in general but Gregorian chant in particular. He was frustrated that the chant was passed on by oral tradition only. He worried that melodies would be lost, especially given the then new fashion for multi-part improvisation.

So while writers have usually treated Guido as an innovator, what’s been forgotten is that his innovations were driven by the desire to conserve and preserve for future generations. The desire to maintain the chant and pass it on was the key issue for him; the technical aspects of the music and writing were merely tools and not ends in themselves. And there was an interesting sociological element here. He had become seriously annoyed at the cartel of chant masters and the power they exercised over the monastic community. He wanted the chant to be freed and put into the hands of everyone both inside and outside the monastery walls.

For this reason, his first great project was a notated Antiphoner, a book of melodies: “For, in such a ways, with the help of God I have determined to notate this antiphoner, so that hereafter through it, any intelligent and diligent person can learn a chant, and after he has learned well part of it through a teacher, he recognizes the rest unhesitatingly by himself without a teacher.” He goes further. Without a written form of music “wretched singers and pupils of singers, even if they should sing every day for a hundred years, will never sing by themselves without a teacher one antiphon, not even a short one, wasting so much time in singing that they could have spent better learning thoroughly sacred and secularly writing.” The elite musicians resisted his attempt to democratize the knowledge and conserve time. Guido did whatever great innovator does: he freed up resources for other uses even while improving lives.

But as a result of his innovation, his monastery in Pomposa, Italy, tossed him out into the snow. He then went to the Pope, who was very impressed, and gave him a letter of support. With the letter in hand, he went to the Bishop of Arezzo, who took him in so that he could continue his preaching and his work. Now, one can’t but think of mistakes that have been made over the years with the Gregorian chant: the attempt to keep it the private preserve of musicologists; the dominance of singers by a single master who believes that he knows the one true way; the perception that chant is only for monasteries but not regular people; and on and on.

Here we see Guido embodying the same principle that drove the Solesmes monastery at the early part of the restoration efforts in the late 19th century: innovation in order to preserve, teach, and distribute this glorious music as widely as possible, in the service of the faith. They had the right ordering of priorities: technical innovation in the service of preserving universal truth.

This story illustrates a general principle in the history of technology. There does seem to be a real pattern here. There are those who believe that innovation is for everyone and ought to be accessible to all — that everyone should be permitted to have access to the forms and structures that make for progress. This side loves technical innovation not for its own sake but in the service of great goals. Then there is the other side, which is reactionary, hates technical innovation, wants to reserve technical forms to a tiny elite, fears freedom, detests the idea of human choice, and advances a kind of Gnosticism over technical forms — always wants it to remain the private preserve of the elect who appoint each other and operate as a kind of guild. This Gnostic guild wants to guard and exclude and privatize, and the people are ultimately their enemy.

This perspective hearkens back to the ancient world where priests served the philosopher kings, and sparingly hand out religious truth to the masses based on what they believe they should know in the service of their agenda.

One can detect these two tendencies from all ages.

In his pedagogy, he adapted an existing song to illustrate the scale: Ut Queant Laxis, a hymn to St. John the Baptist, who was then considered the patron saint of singers. On the first syllable of each ascending note, the words were Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol — the very foundation of music pedagogy to this day: do, re, mi, etc.

A millennium later, Guido’s innovation is still with us!

Here is a model for our times and all times.

Jeffrey Tucker [send him mail] is editorial vice president of

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