Friday, 17 August 2012

Latin, Jim, but not as we know it

Here's one for the latinists among you. It's from the Sarum Tonal.

Omnis antiphona primi toni que incipit in desolre descendendo in cefaut et statim saltat ad gesolreut per efaut, et postea ab efaut per gesolreut vel sine gesolreut ascendit ad alamire.

Well I have wasted a lot of time trying to figure this out. Though it has been fascinating in a rather frustrating way. It didn't take that long to discover that all those strange terms are names for the degrees of the musical scale.

It is common knowledge that what we call our 'major' scale derives from the work of a Benedictine monk, Guido d'Arezzo (d.about 1050), who worked out that each half verse of the hymn to St John the Baptist ascends a step, and thus might provide a sort of musical mnemonic.

UT queant laxis
REsonare fibris
MIra gestorum
FAmuli tuorum
SOLve polluti
LAbii reatum, Sancte Joannes.

So, Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La. Which ought to ring a bell. If you substitute Do for Ut, and add a Ti (to drink with jam and bread), it will bring us back to Do.

But d'Arezzo's scale (and 'scale' means ladder) didn't include the Ti, so only had six notes. This is sometimes known as the Hexachord, or the Scala Aretina (Arezzo's ladder). Long before Messrs. Rodgers and Hammerstein got to work with Do a Deer (which seems to suggest granny-bashing), many composers had used the simple Hexachord as a cantus firmus for very splendid music—Palestrina, for instance, wrote a Hexachord Mass. Indeed, the challenge was precisely to make something extraordinary from what is really quite a dull motif. But this dull motif was recognized by all as the most important building-block of music, and therefore composing explicitly to it was an act of homage to d'Arezzo.

The point of the hexachord is that it is not necessarily pitch-related: what we call 'keys' are all applications of the same hexachord with Do (or Ut) being really at any pitch you want. As time went on, the seventh degree of the scale (which we call Ti) was added, and so the hexachord ('six notes') became an Octave ('eight notes'), with a Do (or Ut) at each end. And, voila, we have modern music.

Once you have musical instruments, though, then fixed pitch, a common agreement as to how to judge a note, is going to be important. A wind instrument, still less an organ, cannot adjust as the human voice can, to any pitch. They are strictly limited by physical constraints of holes along a tube. And, since the West has liked to use musical instruments in church for a very long time, this is no doubt why the quarter tones so typical of, say, Greek chant, are not a feature of Western music. If an organ is going to play with a crumhorn, then both need to agree as to pitch, or they will play out of tune with each other. Ut re me fa sol la will not help them here.

And so the mediævals came up with names for the various degrees of pitch, which were really concretized (sorry) elements of d'Arezzo's scale. To wit:
Alamire
Bemi
Cesolfaut
Delasolre
Elami
Faut
Gesolreut.

And it won't take a genius to work out that this corresponds to our modern and simpler pitch names of A, B, C, D, E, F and G. No doubt the reason that Alamire does not sit where Ut does, but rather on La, is that so much liturgical music, Gregorian Chant, preceded the Scala Aretina in composition—though not notation—and tends more commonly to 'home' on what we call A, just as our 'minor' scale does. But that is to get into the question of 'modes', which is another matter.

What intrigues me is the names the mediævals gave to the pitches. Perhaps here one of you can help. If you subtract the first letter or two, then the names actually have elements from the Scala Aretina:-
(A-)la-mi-re
(Ce-)sol-fa-ut and so forth.
But what do they refer to? I wondered whether they might represent the corresponding snatches of the hymn Ut queant laxis, but I can't make them fit. In fact, they don't seem to have much shape at all.

But we can at least now translate that puzzling bit of Latin at the top of this post:
All antiphons of the first tone which begin on D, then go down to C and straight away jump up to G by way of E &c.&c.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

The longer names are names of *particular* pitches-- not just any A, B, C, D, E, F, or G. For example, Desolre is a specific D-- the one on the middle line of the bass clef; whereas delasolre is the D an octave above (D above middle C); and delasol is the D the octave above that. Not all the names are unique-- the are two notes which are alamire. You can construct the names be reading across the table called "the medieval hexachordal system" in the article entitled "Guidonian hand" on wikipedia. Or, you can read them off the hand to the left of the table.

By the way, the letter names A B C D etc. predate Guido. His syllable names-- ut re mi etc., together with the interlocking natural, soft, and hard hexachords, are a means of navigating the pre-existing pitch relations. The letter names don't imply any fixed pitch, but because the range of notes they could notate was made to fit the (adult, male) voice (including falsetto), this limited the variability of pitch in practice, and, as you say, when and as instruments entered the picture, local pitch standards tended to emerge, slowly coalescing towards an international pitch standard in the 19th century.

Although the hymn text "ut queant laxis" is 8th century, it may well be that it was Guido who fitted it to the tune we have. It's certainly interesting that the vowels are all different in ut, re, mi, fa, and so-- repeating only on la.

Pastor in Valle said...

Thank you, Anonymous. And so quickly!

Anonymous said...

Two great posts. You still have a superb gift for the written (and, I'm sure, spoken) word ... Thank you. The most recent post is very amusing and the previous one, very profound. I couldn't agree more and, too, am much more in the the camp of the first choice but all-too-often constrained to be the second.

Mater mari said...

Fascinating stuff, but above all such a joy that you are now well enough to write posts which educate, amuse and generally enrich our lives. Good, too, to hear tell of Fr Tony Churchill, who was our adopted parish priest when we lived in Sussex, and a great support in so many ways.


Mater mari said...

Fascinating stuff, but above all such a joy that you are now well enough to write posts which educate, amuse and generally enrich our lives. Good, too, to hear tell of Fr Tony Churchill, who was our adopted parish priest when we lived in Sussex, and a great support in so many ways.

Christopher said...

Anonymous has got there before me; all that remains is to point out that your translation is perfect except for the term 'Efaut', which must be translated as 'F'. E is Elami; F is Ffaut, hence Efaut. Pretty confusing!

GOR said...

Well you lost me pretty quickly there, Father - but fascinating nevertheless. Who knew music was so complicated? I guess I’m of the “Do, a deer” simplicity! I thought some words in that quote were French!

While I can ‘carry a tune’ and have been known to add volume to choirs in both Gregorian and Polyphonic renderings, even my limited abilities have not been passed on. My daughter as they say “hasn’t a note in her head”. Well she has a lot of notes in her head, but they’re invariably the wrong ones! Listening to her trying to sing along with a recording is painful – like an argument among cats!

I seem to recall that Pavarotti didn’t read music but would listen to recordings by the greats – like Caruso, Gigli, Di Stefano etc. and tailored his delivery accordingly. So he too, probably wouldn’t have known a desolre from a gesolreut!

AndrewJ said...

Excellent post Sean, great to see you back in cracking form - and I'm still chuckling over "granny bashing"! It's a bit off topic, but I attended the Liceo Guido d'Arezzo in Perugia in 1975 and 1976, and always assumed for some reason that the school was named after a medieval poet - it's good to know finally who the great man really was.

Anonymous said...

The 'Ti' doesn't need to be added. If you put Sancte Iohannes in a separate line and take the initials, you'll 'si' where it comes from.

Chris said...

And an example (if the link works) http://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=sites&srcid=ZGVmYXVsdGRvbWFpbnxzYXJ1bWNoYW50Y2F8Z3g6NzA3ZGVkMmRmNTVmNTBmZg

On page 31 of the file (1637 as numbered), the antiphon on Benedictus at Lauds of Corpus Christi, Ego sum panis vivus.