The Renaissance Reform of Medieval Music Theory: Guido of Arezzo between Myth and History

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Publication: Music Library Association. Notes
Author: Snyder, John L
Date published: June 1, 2011

MUSICA ANTIQUA The Renaissance Reform of Medieval Music Theory: Guido of Arezzo between Myth and History. By Stefano Mengozzi. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. [xviii, 286 p. ISBN 9780521884150. $95.] Music examples, illustrations, bibliography, index.

Guido of Arezzo is surely the most familiar of all Medieval music theorists; certainly no history of music course fails to introduce Guido as the inventor of the staff and of solmization. And many, if not most, also credit him with the system of overlapping hexachords, taken as the way musicians of the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance conceived pitch relationships, and therefore seen as the key to understanding medieval and Renaissance music properly. It will therefore come as a revelation to a great many-perhaps even to some specialists in the area-to learn the degree to which the Guidonian theory we all met as undergraduates is in reality the product of reworkings, reconceptualizations, "reforms," and other manipulations by later writers.

In this rich but compact book, Megozzi retraces the course of Guido's legacy from the eleventh century to the end of the sixteenth, with an epilogue covering the period up to the early nineteenth century and the establishment of musicology as a scholarly discipline. The book is, of course, a contribution to the history of music theory, but-unusually for music theory-it also partakes of reception history, engaging wider intellectual history at key points. This monograph thus belongs to that narrowest of subspecialties: the metahistory of music theory; but, precisely because it occupies a nexus among several disciplines, it will be of interest to scholars working in a variety of niches: medievalists, Renaissance scholars, performers of medieval and Renais - sance music (to name the obvious), not to mention those engaged in the teaching of music history at all levels.

The wide scope of the book (almost six centuries, plus extensions, of music history), features a large cast of characters, with an interesting variety of motives and agendas. Running through all this, almost as an idée fixe, is the hexachord system itself, as a pedagogical tool, and as a fundamental theory of pitch space. The book is, appropriately, organized into two principal sections, each with four chapters. Part 1, "Guidonian Solmization in Music Theory and Practice," covers the history and development of Guido's ideas to the end of the trecento, reading the primary sources "as 'informants' on the basic questions of the nature and function(s) of Guido's hexachord as understood in the Middle Ages" (p. 13). Part 2, "Reforming the Music Curriculum in the Age of Humanism," continues the story to the end of the sixteenth century, "address[ing] the historiographic side of the question . . . to understand the historical circumstances that led to the emergence of the foundational view of the hexachordal system" (p. 13). These are framed by an introduction and an epilogue, and punctuated by an "Interlude" with the intriguing title "All Hexachords are 'Soft.' "

Mengozzi opens the introduction with a series of questions, the first of which is, "Was there a hexachordal season in the long history of Western music?" That is, he continues, was there a time when "the octave scale . . . did not possess the cognitive and normative weight that it undoubtedly has had since the Enlightenment?" (p. 1). The introduction unfolds an overview of the spread of the hexachord system, and the friction between it and the system of seven pitch letters-the essential basis of the story to be told. Of central importance is the medieval distinction between proprietas (the six-note segment of the gamut) and deductio (the attached set of syllables). As Mengozzi sums it up, "this monograph aims to chart out the rich and convoluted history of the hexachordal system as a way of appreciating the cultural factors that transformed that system from a low-key method for sight-singing into an all-around structural pillar of early music" (p. 15).

Chapter 1, "Guido's Musical Syllables: Conflicting Views from Modern Histori - ography," further explores the differences of opinion among modern musicologists (citing a large number of them) concerning the structural significance (or insignificance) of the hexachordal system. The discussion shows not only disagreements among authorities, but even the internal struggles of some of them with the issues. The "soft" understanding of the hexachord (exemplified by Walter Wiora), is that of a "two-tiered" system: letter names for music theory, and hexachordal syllables for sightsinging pedagogy. "[R]ecent musical scholarship has followed along the footsteps of Riemann, Dahlhaus, Crocker, and Allaire, rather than Lange and Wiora. Yet, a revisitation of the 'soft' understanding of hexachordal theory is in order" (p. 29).

Chapter 2, "Inside the Gamut: The Major Sixth in Guido of Arezzo and Hermannus Contractus," examines the roles played by the major sixth in the theories of Guido and Hermann. A key concept here is that of affinitas, which Mengozzi treats in some detail. "Affinity," the replication of some series of intervals, occurs most completely at the octave, next most completely at the fifth (or at the fourth), and not at the sixth for any practical purposes. Mengozzi puts the matter into particularly sharp focus when he paraphrases Wiora: "the genius of Guidonian solmization lies precisely in artificially assuming a simplified model of the diatonic space for the purpose of 'navigating' that space correctly-quite a different goal from precisely mapping its internal articulation" (p. 34).

Chapter 3, "Hands Off! Singing Without the Syllables in the Middle Ages," reexamines the conventional view that "Guido's guidelines for learning plainchant melodies with the help of the six syllables spread across Europe like wildfire" (p. 44). But Mengozzi presents ample evidence to show that the hexachordal thinking played a minor role in music theory in the two centuries after Guido. Indeed, a number of treatises from this period that originally did not mention the syllables were later "retrofitted" to include them (table 3.2, p. 49; p. 53). In short, "the six syllables entered medieval practice and theory from the side window rather than from the front door . . . without challenging the pre-existing, letterbased diatonic order" (p. 59). The chapter concludes with a thorough survey of musical Hands in the sources, to the beginning of the sixteenth century. As he shows, Hands may include the syllables, but often rely entirely on letter-names; further, Hands are (here Mengozzi quotes Michel Huglo) an "echo of the oral teaching of music in the schools since the twelfth century" (p. 76). He concludes, "Guido offered a complete method for training singers that relied far more on the letters than on the syllables . . . the availability of alternative methods for singing . . . was the root of heated arguments in the fifteenth century" (p. 81).

Chapter 4, "The Making of a System: Medieval Music Semiotics in Transition," charts the development of the medieval hexachord system as a foundational view of diatonic space. Mengozzi claims that "the spur for transforming Guido's sparse guidelines for solmization into a fully fledged system came not from the world of musical practice . . . but rather from a new, systematizing approach to musica practica proposed by university-trained minds" (pp. 82- 83). The principal figures in this are Johannes de Garlandia, Magister Lambert, and the English cleric Amerus. A lengthy quotation from Amerus (pp. 91-93), detailing the mutations, illustrates the "painstaking laundry lists of letters and syllables, the triumph and pleasure of mechanistic ratio for its own sake" (p. 93) that became commonplace in the music theory of the succeeding two centuries. Mengozzi puts it in a nutshell: "Parisian theory after 1250 took the decisive step of parsing the gamut in major-sixth segments according to the anchoring of the ut-la syllables on G, C, and F, so that the syllables in the end appeared to be in the driver's seat of musical theory and practice" (p. 93). The chapter also considers the nature of mutatio and the coniunctae, finding them both virtual: that is, the former is an artificial product of solmization rather than an actual feature of the music, and the latter is found to be more a clever means of providing chromatic notes with a diatonic justification than a means of deriving them. The chapter concludes by examining the hexachordal system from a semiotic point of view.

The two major sections of the monograph are linked by the aforementioned brief interlude, "All Hexachords are 'Soft.' " After a short review, Mengozzi sums up the argument to this point: "a contextual reading of the relevant music-theoretical literature confirms that the hexachord system was understood in the Middle Ages as a 'soft' superstructure overlaid on a 'hard' heptachordal layer that had long been in place" (p. 111). Looking forward to part 2, he asks, "why has musical scholarship so often argued otherwise?" (p. 112).

Chapter 5, "Back to the Monochord: Church Reform and Music Theory in the Fifteenth Century," opens with the work of Johannes Ciconia, who advocated teaching singing through letters only. Mengozzi examines Ciconia's sources and arguments in some detail, with consideration of the thennew humanist developments. The discussion continues with the reform-minded Conrad of Zabern. Both writers reached into the Carolingian past for support, finding it with Pseudo-Odo, John of Afflighem, and Guido himself. As Mengozzi had foreshadowed it at the end of chapter 4, these and other authors began "to open a chasm between the doctrines of 'the followers of Guido' and those of Guido himself " (p. 109).

Chapter 6, "Normalizing the Humanist: Johannes Gallicus as a 'Follower of Guido,' " explores the complex of relationships among Gallicus, Nicolaus Burtius, and Bartolomeo Ramos de Pareja. Here we see Guido demoted from unassailable auctoritas to music theorist and placed in historical context. In his Ritus canendi (early 1460s), Gallicus examines Guido's own writings, concluding that the syllables played only a minor role in Guido's pedagogy. His proposed reforms, including singing with letters, generated much controversy. Ramos (1482) joined the fray, criticizing Guido harshly, and proposing a new, eight-syllable solmization scheme. Burtius (1487), while attempting "to align himself with those . . . who are critical of hexachordal mutations" (p. 166), nevertheless distorted both Ramos and Gallicus. Mengozzi includes a revealing table (pp. 168-70) giving parallel passages from Gallicus and Burtius on the origin of the six syllables. The chapter ends with a look at Franchino Gafori's treatment of Gallicus's ideas in his Theorica musicae (1480, 2nd ed. 1492). Mengozzi shows that "Gafori, like Burtius, was evidently unsettled by the critical remarks on solmization presented in the Ritus, and strived to offer a less threatening public portrait of his predecessor" (pp. 176-77). But between the two editions of the Theorica, Gafori read Ramos; this is of importance to his Practica musicae, which is central to the next chapter.

Chapter 7, "Gafori's Hand: Forging a New Guido for a New Humanist Culture," is devoted to Gafori and his Practica musicae (1496). The springboard was provided by Ramos and his attack on Guidonian solmization as he knew it. "Until the end of the fifteenth century . . . theorists continued to refer to the six syllables as a deductio, not a hexachordum-that is to say, as a 'virtual segment' devised as an aid to musical memory, rather than as a portion of the scale made of concrete sounds" (p. 181). But Gafori (along with Ramos, Burtius, and John Hothby), reworked the concept and the terminology, arriving at the hexachord theory as it is now generally thought of- "obliterat[ing] the subtle 'two-tier' construct between proprietas and hexachordum and between voces and litterae " (p. 193). Nevertheless, "Gafori wishes to present himself as a reliable witness of the Guidonian tradition, perhaps . . . implying that the 'foundational spin' he is attributing to the system had been rooted in musical consciousness since Guido's time" (p. 193). Much of the chapter, however, is concerned not just with Gafori's end result, but with his process. An earlier (ca. 1483) draft of the Practica musicae survives, and Mengozzi compares it with the final product (key passages are given in parallel in a table, pp. 195-99); the discussion is both fascinating and revealing. The chapter also includes discussions of Gafori's treatment of mutation, the modes, and of music history (including classical Greece). The final section relates the Practica to late fifteenthcentury Milanese politics, particularly those surrounding the court of Duke Ludovico Sforza.

Chapter 8, "Hexachordal Theory and Deductive Method in Gioseffo Zarlino's Dimonstrationi harmoniche (1571)," concerns Zarlino's treatment of the issues. The first half of the sixteenth century had seen a solidification of Gafori's view of the hexachord, but Zarlino "developed a new theoretical application of Gaforian notion of hexachordum" (p. 227) and "conferred a stronger foundational role to hexachordo than envisioned even by Gafori" (p. 230). Of special note here is the discussion of Zarlino's methodology, which Mengozzi terms Neo-Scholastic, and particularly his axiomatic method of argumentation. As Mengozzi sums it up, "Gafori and Zarlino emerge as the authors who parted ways from the medieval tradition once and for all, whether intentionally or not" (p. 252).

The epilogue, "Discarding the Guidonian Image of Early Music," surveys briefly the effect that the revisionist view of Guido, widely accepted, has had on modern understanding of medieval and Renaissance music. "[M]odernity has often had more reasons to embrace the foundational image of Guido that it received from the hands of prominent authors such as Gafori and Zarlino, than to reject it" (p. 256). Mengozzi concludes: "Calling into question the legitimacy of the Guidonian image that is customarily attached to early music is not to deny the 'alterity value' of that music . . . . Rather, it is an invitation to rethink the precise nature of that alterity and of the effort required from us in order to come to terms with it" (p. 257).

The book is exquisitely organized and engagingly written. What could have been a dry survey of treatises and dates is told as the musical-intellectual drama it is. But scholarly books are not only to be read, they are to be used. Mengozzi's occasional use of such devices as in medias res (e.g., the beginning of chap. 6) may make the plot momentarily hard to follow for nonspecialists, and perhaps cause researchers a small delay in finding a particular datum. Against that, the extensive quotations from the sources, with translations, are more than welcome. There are occasional doubtful moments in the translations, such as when Gallicus's "nos piius [sic] ille Dei servus canere docet per litteras" is rendered "that pious servant of God [i.e., Guido of Arezzo] teaches us how to sing via the seven letters' (p. 152; italics mine). Such freedoms clarify Mengozzi's interpretations of certain passages, but may be uncomfortable for some. In any case, uniform translation principles would have been impossible to maintain in dealing with six centuries of Latin (and some of the translations are by others, from published sources). The tables and illustrations are extensive and most helpful; the tables, some of which are mentioned above, will be a boon to both students and scholars. I would have preferred a more consistent typography for b rotundum and b quadratum, and in Table 1.2 (p. 3) the b is unfortunately doubled in both the excellentes and superacutae. Mengozzi's occasional explanatory notes are very useful, and he has been judicious about which comments to put in the main text and which in the notes. The notes themselves appear as footnotes rather than endnotes, for which the publisher is to be commended. In sum, this monograph is a praiseworthy contribution to the literature of music theory, its history, and its scholarship.

Author affiliation:


University of Houston

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