Tuesday, 24 June 2008

The musicians' feast

Today, the feast of the birth of St John the Baptist, is, in a way, even more a musicians' feast than the feast of St Cecilia. Why, is a bit interesting.

The hymn at both Vespers (in both ordinary and extraordinary forms) goes as follows:

Ut queant laxis
resonare fibris
Mira gestorum
famuli tuorum
Solve polluti
labii reatum,
Sancte Ioannes.

Free from guilt your servants' unclean lips, O holy John, that they may be able to sing with clear voices the the wonders of your life.

Here's the music:
Now, I suppose, if you're not in any way musical, this will pass you by, but if you look at all the notes accompanying the first syllables at each of the half bars, thus, at UT, REsonare, MIra, FAmuli &c, you'll see that each note is one degree higher than the last, with the exception of the last.

Now put the syllables together, and you get:

Ut, re, mi, fa, so, la.

This comes down to us as the 'scale' or 'steps' of music, sometimes known as the scala aretina, or the hexachord. Several settings of the Mass use this as a cantus firmus (a harmonic base, and/or a recurring theme in the music), such as the English Tudor composer Avery Burton's Missa Ut, re, me, fa, sol, la, or the better known Francisco Valls' Missa Scala Aretina.

And when people thought that 'ut' was a bit ugly, they substituted 'do' instead, adding also 'ti' to make a full scale. Which leads us back to………


Anonymous said...

This is marvelous thank you, there are all sorts of links and mysteries bound into the ancient plainsong that we risk losing if we sacrifice the ancient heritage of the Church

I wonder if Marty Haugen works with these wonders?

Anonymous said...

Yes, a most interesting post Father.

Let us hope that the hymn is sung today in many places - I rather doubt it though.

I have always thought St. John the Baptist's feast (and octave) have been much neglected. I wonder if anyone will be blessing the 'rogi' today as in the Rituale?

leutgeb said...

Thank you for the reminder of all of that.

I never quite tied it up with today.

I think the French still use Ut.
I've definitely been Cor en Ut on occasion.

Maybe we are about to witness a revival of Cantus Firmus Masses settings....

Anonymous said...

Surfing the web I found one place at least where both the hymn was sung and the fires blest:


A bit far too travel though.