Friday, February 13, 2009

Guido the Innovator

This is a redone version of a post I put up two years ago, improved in many ways. My apologies to those who already read the old one. I hope this is still interesting in some way:

The people who make modern inventions are often celebrated for improving our lives but what about those who laid the very technological foundation of civilization as we know it? They served the Catholic faith and they served the world. I'm thinking here of those who solved the architectural problems 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 there, the late 10th and early 11th century Benedictine monk named Guido d'Arezzo. 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. But a new book by Angelo Rusconi, translated into an article format by Patrick Reynolds from the Italian, and appearing in Goldberg #46 (2007), offers a more complete picture of what drove him, and the results will be very exciting for any Church musician.

Consider first the technical feat. Imagine a world without music staffs. 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 tried since the ancient world without success. Some attempts in the 8th and 9th centuries came a bit closer. But it was Guido who made the break through with lines and scales that illustrate for the eye what the voice is to sing, and precisely so.

What a remarkable innovation, if you think about it.

Now, Rusconi shows that Guido's primary interest was in notating not just music in general but the chant in particular. He was frustrated that the chant was passed on by oral tradition only. He worried that melodies would be lost. So while writers have usually treated him 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 wanted the chant to be freed from the control of a few masters and put into the hands of everyone. For this reason, his first great project was a notated Antiphoner: "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 teach, 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."

As a result of his innovation, his monastery in Pomposa tossed him out (the elites having resisted his attempt to democratize the knowledge) but he was taken in by the Bishop of Arezzo, where he was allowed to 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 parishes; and on and on. Here we see Guido embodying that the same principle that drove Solesmes at the early part of the restoration efforts: innovation in order to preserve, teach, and distribute this glorious music as widely as possible, in the service of the faith.

This story illustrates a general principle in the history of liturgy. There does seem to be a real pattern here. There are those who believe the liturgy is for everyone and ought to be accessible to all -- that everyone should be permitted to have access to the forms and structures and that the Church should evangelize and spread. This side loves technical innovation not for its own sake but in the service of both preservation and growth, and this side a general faith in the capacity of everyone to make sense of things and progress toward a kind of universal offering to God. This is the spirit of Solesmes, of St. Gregory, of Pius V, of the great preachers and teachers from St. Paul to Benedict XVI.

Then there is the other side, which is reactionary, hates technical innovation, wants to reserve liturgical forms to a tiny elite, fears freedom, detests the idea of human choice, and advances a kind of gnosticism over doctrine and liturgy - always wants it to remain the private preserve of the elect who appoint each other and operate as a kind of liturgical guild. This Gnosticism 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 the earliest part of the Christian age to our own.

Indeed, in our own times, we can detect the existence of these two sides in the debate about the future of liturgy. The people who claim the mantle of the "spirit of Vatican II" want to freeze liturgy as it was in the 1970s when they were in full control. They have their own private (Gnostic) interpretation of documents and they operate as a kind of guild that desires control above all else. They don't want people reading the documents of Vatican II for themselves for fear that they would arrive at different conclusions and question the claims of the elites.

In contrast, the new liturgical movement as led by Benedict XVI is encouraging the widest possible distribution of the documents of Vatican II, and evangelizes on their behalf, and believes in freeing the classical usage of the Roman Rite so that everyone can have access to our tradition and grow to love it and embrace it as our own. This movement trusts the priests and trusts the people in their capacity for learning, loving, and restoring our deepest traditions so that they can live again in our own time. This was the spirit of Guido and it is the spirit of the Muto Proprio.

It is the spirit driving those who are working to make the Church's music available to all the world for free download, without legal teethers and without the limitation that comes from physical books. We are faced with the technological possibility of infinite and universal reproducibility of the chant, one thousand years after Guido d'Arezzo first imagined how to put sound on paper.