Sunday, October 15, 2006

Musical notes, the Latin conjunction ut, and St. John the Baptist

I have, through much of my pi-over-two gigaseconds of life, had a great interest in music, along with many other curious interests in practical things like Catholicism, Computers, and Chesterton. Though I have dabbled with, er, let us say the "lower strings", in both bowed and electronic forms, I am hardly a performer, though I have played both Mozart and the Cars - not both on the same night, however.

How, then, you may wonder, does music fit into the hilarious collection of interests I have? Well, for a music guy, Chesterton might at first seem to be a real let-down, since he was rather tone-deaf, but he actually had some very important things to say about music. For example:
And the supreme and most practical value of poetry is this, that in poetry, as in music, a note is struck which expresses beyond the power of rational statement a condition of mind, and all actions arise from a condition of mind. Prose can only use a large and clumsy notation; it can only say that a man is miserable, or that a man is happy; it is forced to ignore that there are a million diverse kinds of misery and a million diverse kinds of happiness. Poetry alone, with the first throb of its metre, can tell us whether the depression is the kind of depression that drives a man to suicide, or the kind of depression that drives him to the Tivoli. Poetry can tell us whether the happiness is the happiness that sends a man to a restaurant, or the much richer and fuller happiness that sends him to church.
[GKC, Robert Browning]
And though music uses a large and clumsy notation (did you ever see a symphonic score?) music itself is not clumsy!

Another time I will quote more of GKC on music, but today I want to look at an interesting fact about the notation of music. Actually, this was something I promised to post about quite some time ago, and forgot all about it, until I had to look something up, and it jogged my memory. Specifically, I promised to explain the link between the names of the diatonic scale and St. John the Baptist.

Having said that, I am sure you will think I must be a musician - or at least a poet! to link such strange things together. But I did not link them. That was done by Guido d'Arezzo (990-1050), who introduced the names of six musical pitches based on the first syllables of the ancient hymn "Ut queant laxis" which is a prayer to St. John! This hymn was written by Paul the Deacon (720-799); St. John is considered a special patron of singers (see Luke 1 for why!)

Here is the hymn in the Gregorian notation:

[from Elson's Music Dictionary, 21]

And an English translation:
That thy servants [this choir] may be able to sing thy deeds of wonder with pleasant voices, remove, O holy John, the guilt of our sin-polluted lips.
[Britt, The Hymns of the Breviary and Missal, 256-7]
Yes, "doe - a deer, a female deer" used to be "ut - a conjunction, a Latin conjunction" but that was deemed hard to sing. Hee hee. Actually, according to Elson's Music Dictionary, "the change of ut to do is attributed to Buononcini about 1700." The seventh or "leading tone" was called "si" but to avoid confusion with "so" it was changed to "te".

Just to make things even more curious, the note ut was also called "gamma". So to go through all the notes from "gamma" to "ut" is to "run the gamut"...

Another time I will talk a little about the mathematics of the notes, and how the powers of two are important to musicians as well as computer scientists. Stay tuned...


A bit more detail:

"The French changed ut to do which was more sonorous to them; ti is the European si formed from the first letters of the last two words Sancte Ioannes. To avoid confusion of the sol-fa si with the alphabetic "C" we [English] changed si to ti."

[Klarmann, Gregorian Chant 126]


At 16 October, 2006 00:41, Blogger love2learnmom said...

Wonderful! I had heard that the do-re-mi originated in a Latin chant (and started with "ut"), but I never knew the translation! How fascinating.

At 16 October, 2006 07:46, Blogger Rick Lugari said...

So cool.

At 16 October, 2006 09:58, Blogger Ana Braga-Henebry said...

In Portuguese the te is still si: do, re', mi, fa, sol, la , si.
In Brazil we thought Maria Von Trapp was wrong.
Btw, I promised to myself and to Ria, that I would read Chesterton. I must have 4 different titles on my nightstand. To no avail. I cannot figure him out.

At 16 October, 2006 12:36, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How cool! Thanks for posting on this - I've never heard of that before.


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