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"Of the arts necessary to life which furnish a concrete result there is carpentry, which produces the chair; architecture, the house; shipbuilding, the ship; tailoring, the garment; forging, the blade.  Of useless arts there is harp playing, dancing, flute playing [piano playing?] of which, when the operation ceases, the result disappears with it.  And indeed, according to the word of the apostle, the result of these is destruction."

--St. Basil c.329-379
 
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It was the age of empires....

 

It is always the age of empires.

But regarding this particular empire, and the ambitious monarch who like many of his kind before and since never seemed to get bored with the idea of controlling the lives of more and more human beings--this monarch unwittingly caused what is perhaps the greatest revolution in the history of musical art, through absolutely no fault of his own.

Writing the stuff down.

Imagine a world in which music can only be learned directly from someone else singing it to you. There is no way to learn it from a book, no way to transmit something of your own creation to foreign lands, and the moment someone's memory begins to fail them, the music is changed permanently because it is only as real as the memories of the people who sing it.

Actually, that is not so hard for many people to imagine because musical literacy is hardly universal even among musicians, and there are some who still think it is a bad idea. But imagine a great symphony like Beethoven's 9th, or the operas of Wagner. The idea of trying to transmit that much information orally is just plain crazy. Just as it would be impossible to build a skyscraper without a common language of architecture for communication and reference, so an art that demanded a certain level of sophistication and complexity would be virtually impossible unless it could be made into a material thing that could be referenced whether you understood every detail or not. A song, perhaps, a simple melody, can be kept in the mind, but an eight voice motet?

But complexity was not exactly what the French emperor Charlemagne in mind. He was striving for unity. All of Europe under his beneficent control. But of course, there was a catch.

The problem with building empires is that somebody else usually controls part of it before you get there. In this case, the man that would have to be dealt with had a certain amount of sway in Catholic Europe at the time. He was the Pope. If the pope got behind the French king, very little could stop him. But the Pope had his own ideas about unity. He wanted to unify the church. In 800 A.D. the Catholic church was the only game in town. But it had lots of franchises, and inevitably, there were variations in the way folks in one part of Europe were doing business from the folks in other parts. The Pope wanted everybody to conform to Rome's way.

When a reformer comes to town artists are usually on a pretty short leash.  Local customs are generally gone; you can forget personal freedom.  Everybody had to start chanting just like they did in Rome. There was to be no other way.

But, you are asking, how is little old Rome going to get all of Europe to subscribe to a system they can't possibly know anything about? They can't just pass out pamphlets with the relevant information. There is no way to write any of this down!

And so, in the days before business class, armed with only a few bags of peanuts, a few brave souls were mandatorialy dispatched to the northern climes, namely Gaul (France), where, in exchange for Papal support, Charlemagne was going to have to surrender his chant.

These traveling music teachers may not have been as cooperative as the Pope had wanted. Depending on whose side you listen to, either the teachers were really incompetent, or intentionally trying to sabotage the project. Or the locals just didn't care for doing things somebody else's way. There is plenty of finger pointing left to us in the languages they could already write down.

Either way the attempt was a failure. The Pope soon found out about it and recalled the teachers, exiling or imprisoning them for good measure. A second attempt was made. This time, nobody was told what was going on. The Pope simply planted a couple of secret agents inside the monasteries at the offending places and waited for the results.

Somewhere in this politic soup a discovery was made by two guys named Odo and Guido. They were able to fix the pitch of a particular chant by writing it above or below a line on a page. They were also able to teach this principle to the young boys they were training to be monks.  Eventually news of this magical method made it back to the ears of the pope. Soon it was being used to standardize chant throughout Europe.

Imagine being able to sing at sight a melody you had never heard before. The very idea would have been considered madness until Odo made his spectacular claims. Now, music was about to become "a thing made," and composers began to get a little more respect. But changing local customs, now that was the real struggle.

It wouldn't have been enough to simply require the locals to give up their cherished methods--that much was obvious from the previous attempt. How often are we in a debate with someone who says "who are you to decide such-and-such?" No matter that the who-are-you happened to be the Pope. Even the Pope was having some trouble being the Pope. In a few centuries there would often be two or even three "Popes" because all of Europe couldn't agree on one. In order to get the locals to accept not only the Roman methods and the fact that they were now being written down (something that the young folks could get used to easily but was making all manner of trouble for the older generation), it was necessary to furnish a divine lie.

It would take a very large library and several shelves full of CD ROMs to catalog all of the divine lies that have been deemed necessary to get the populace to tow the line. It was believed that the only way people in other territories would accept this new repertoire to completely supplant their own was if it was thought to be of divine origin.

So a new legend was born about a Pope named Gregory who single-handedly created the entire repertory of (Roman) church chant then in use. It had all been dictated to him by the Holy Spirit. Stories were told, paintings were made, the Spirit being depicted as a Dove, and eventually the saying  "A little birdie told me" came into the English language.

Never mind that Gregory was (probably) not a musician. Or that his Papacy had come to an end well before the beginning of written music, three centuries prior to the debate you are reading about. He had instituted a number of reforms to the liturgy, and that was good enough. Medieval music in the church soon became known as Gregorian chant, and, on the basis of this claim, Roman chant eventually made some significant gains in western Europe.

But of course a very significant cat had emerged from that bag in Rome, and, while nothing that causes change ever takes hold quickly, music in Europe was soon to change radically, and to little resemble music from anywhere else in the world. Being able to write it down would soon mean that different tones could be sounded simultaneously, once somebody figured out how to notate rhythm (that was another laborious struggle), and with it, harmony was born. So were professional musicians, and composers who became celebrities even though most were still considered servants, and musical compositions that could make their way through many lands.

 

michael@pianonoise.com