A new way of looking at things
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” –  Henry Miller

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.


Guido d'Arezzo Part 1

17 May 2013

A statue of Guido Monaco, better known as Guido d’Arezzo, stands in Arezzo, Italy.


There was once this guy who was a monk.  In fact, that was his name — Guy Monk, or as his paisà (buddies) pronounced it, Guido Monaco.

He is perhaps better known as Guido d’Arezzo or Guido Aretino, the name deriving from his city, Arezzo (Aretium).  Guido is one of many notable aretini who have made their mark through the centuries.

Born in 991 or 992, Guido lived during a period of monumental transformation in music:  polyphony was emerging as musicians learned to mingle several independent melodic lines, notation was developing due to the increasing demands of music of the time, and people were starting to ask questions in ways that were never asked before about how sound can be organized.


Pomposa Abbey


It all started at the Pomposa Abbey, a Benedictine monastery on the Adriatic coast just north of Ravenna.  When they were singing Gregorian chant every day, the choirboys seemed to be doing fine with declension (dominus, domine, dominum . . . of course, that’s easy).  But Guido noticed that, musically, when the singers would get to the end of a phrase, some would make a left turn and sound a little sinister, while others would make a right turn, sounding more dexterous.  (Warning: Italian puns have been detected in the vicinity.)

So Guido came up with some neat tricks to help the singers to learn their chants.  For more than a century before Guido’s time, a form of neumatic notation had existed which used symbols known as neumes.  The problem was that, as these neumes would lie in campo aperto (open field), they might give the idea of whether a melody goes up or down, but offer no clue as to the exact pitch or interval involved.


Notker Balbulus (c. 840-912):  plainchant from Liber hymnorum (1881-1887), showing neumes without staff-lines or in ‘campo aperto’ [open field], Stiftsbibliothek, Einsiedeln, Switzerland

 (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


Eventually a horizontal line was added (representing a pitch that everybody could agree upon, say, the sound of the church bell), and then maybe another line would be added to the first.

To these two parallel lines, Guido added a red line for F and a yellow line for C, pitches with neighboring semitones.  (If you look at a piano keyboard, the pairs E-F and B-C are found where two white keys are positioned adjacently with no black key in between.)  This made it possible to read and sing any chant at sight, even if never having heard it before, as the semitones gave you your bearings.


Anonymous: O sapientia — a four-line staff with a vestigial red line indicating F (note also the “c” clef in the lowest space) can be seen in this manuscript of the antiphon, Digital Library Köln

 (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


Guido later described this new system of lines and spaces in his treatise, Micrologus de Disciplina Artis Musicae (A Short Treatise on the Discipline of Musical Art, c. 1026).  His four-line staff is still used today for plainchant.

For various purposes, staves of many different numbers of lines were to follow, but the modern five-line staff became fairly standard by the sixteenth century.  Instead of colored lines, the letters indicating these lines (F, C, and later G) turned into our modern clefs.

The title page of an edition of Micrologus published in 1904

 (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


The modern clefs — from left, G (treble), C (commonly alto or tenor), and F (bass) — are fanciful renderings of the respective letters.


If we think about this long enough, using lines for notes is sort of like traffic lanes.  This is ironic, because if you have ever driven in Italy, you will have noticed that no one holding onto the volante di guida (steering wheel) ever pays any attention to these lines on the roads.

Anyway, due to this pedagogical feat, Guido became famous throughout Italy, and everyone should have been happy.  But as we all know, if one does things a little too well, all of the mediocre monks will vote one out of the abbey.  Guido, as a result, was disguido (sent to the wrong address).



So next, Guido found himself in Arezzo, where he had landed a gig conducting a group of cathedral singers.


Corso Italia is a street in the center of Arezzo.


Upon publishing his treatise mentioned earlier, Micrologus, Guido was invited around 1028 to Rome by Pope John XIX to talk about his new ideas.  He didn’t stay very long, as the weather wasn’t to his liking — “Fa un caldo boia [It’s hangman hot],” as they say in Rome.

Back in Arezzo, Guido sent a letter to his old paisà Michael, a fellow monk at Pomposa.  In this letter, known as Epistola de ignoto cantu (Letter on the ignorance of the singer), or perhaps more simply and kindly as Epistola ad Michaelem, Guido described singers as "the most stupid men of our times."  He also commented on the fact that his success had brought him both positive and negative attention.

In this letter Guido went on to illustrate his successful pedagogical tool, the hymn “Ut queant laxis,” which would go on to be the chart-topping hit of the eleventh century.  This chant in honor of St. John uses words attributed to Paulus Diaconus, an eighth-century Lombard monk and scholar.  It is not certain whether Guido wrote the music himself, or simply adapted a pre-existing melody.

A unique feature of the tune is that, in the first six musical phrases, each begins a step higher than the last, forming a scale.  (The word scale, by the way, derives from the Latin word scala— a flight of steps, stairs, staircase, or ladder — which is what this tune constructs very nicely.)  Guido then borrowed the syllables of the text corresponding to these scale steps (that is, the initial syllable of each half-line of verse, forming a type of acrostic) to give names to the notes: ut, re, me, fa, sol, and la.


The hymn, Ut queant laxis, from which the syllables ut, re, me, fa, sol, and la (in color) are derived, each representing a degree of a scale, is notated on a four-line staff with a later invention, the F clef.


This should start sounding vaguely familiar by now, like something maybe out of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.  Except that, in case you heard Julie Andrews sing in the film version of The Sound of Music, you may not exactly recall the word “ut.”

The reason for that is, in the seventeenth century, everyone (well, everyone but the French) decided to get rid of “ut,” as it sounded too much like the noise you make when the sackbut player behind you gets carried away and his slide hits you in the head.  At least, that’s my theory.

Many experts, however, believe that the syllable “do,” with its vowel being more open than that of “ut” and thus making it easier to sing, was derived from the name of the Italian theorist Giovanni Battista Doni (c. 1593 – 1647).  Of course, there is one vote — from Maria von Trapp — that the syllable derives from a deer, a female deer.


A plaque commemorates Guido's home in Arezzo, Italy.


I realize that I am going off on a tangent here, but a couple of years ago I was in Vienna attending a concert at the Wiener Konzerthaus.  During intermission I got into a discussion with the man sitting next to me (who was Viennese), about, among other things, the staging of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, The Sound of Music taking place just then in Salzburg.  Up until this point in Austria (where the story of The Sound of Music is set), those Austrians who had any familiarity with this musical considered it überkitsch, not worthy to reverberate among the same hills as Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, or even Falco.  Most of the population had never even heard of the film or the play.  But my seatmate informed me that now everything has changed, reciting a list of his personal favorite musical films that included Oklahoma! and The King and IWarum?

I realize that I am going off on a second tangent as well, but, five paragraphs back I used the comparative term “higher” in reference to a pitch, assuming that everyone knows what this means.  The higher and lower analogy for tones has been hanging around the western world at least since the ancient Greeks, although what they called high, we call low, and vice-versa, which really messed up medieval theorists.  This is due to the fact that what the ancient Greeks referred to as high was the string on their kithara that was highest off the ground, being the lowest-sounding string to our ears.  Tones do not necessarily have to be high or low, either.  In China, tones are lighter or darker; in some African cultures tones are younger or older.


The Guidonian hexachord

Anyway, back to our hot release of the eleventh century, “Ut queant laxis.”  Developing out of the Aretinian syllables listed above arose a system that represents a major stage in mapping and understanding the sounds of the medieval world.

The six syllables designate six pitches, as we have seen, but it is the spaces between them and not the pitches themselves that give them their true character.  These six pitches, known as a hexachord, ascend by whole tones with the exception of the middle two (mi and fa), which lie a semitone apart.

Not only does this hexachord map onto the series of pitches beginning at C as in the chant “Ut queant laxis,” but also those beginning on G (a perfect fifth above C) and, with a slight alteration, those beginning on F (a perfect fifth below C).  The alteration in the F hexachord involves the lowering of the fourth degree to B flat to maintain the semitone between the two middle pitches of the hexachord.  This B flat was called molle (soft), due to its pleasant effect on the ear, in contrast to B natural, which was called durum (hard).  Thus, the three hexachords came to be called molle (beginning on F, which involves the B flat), durum (beginning on G, which involves B natural), and natural (beginning on C, with no Bs).

Eventually, the rounded b (b rotundum) for B flat (soft) became our flat sign (), and the square (b quadrum) for B natural (hard) became, with some changes, our sharp () and natural () signs today.

Incidentally, medieval singers and composers were warned against the improper use of the highly dissonant interval of the tritone that results from not lowering the fourth degree of the F hexachord to B flat with the rhymed caveat,


Mi contra fa est diabolus in musica

mi against fa is the devil in music.


The “mi” referred to in this saying belongs to the G hexachord (the pitch B natural), and the “fa” is from the C hexachord (the pitch F), which together form the interval of a tritone.  You can tell that they really didn’t like the tritone back then.


Anonymous: "Plagi Protus" intonation of the Tonary in the Troper, Sequentiary and Proser from Southwestern France, Région d'Auch (11th century), showing neumes as they had been notated for over a century before Guido, without staff; Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

 (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}




The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

Related Posts (Italy)

Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

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