The Christian West and Its Singers: The First Thousand Years
Yale University Press, 2010
692 pp., 60.0
Soundscapes of Our Past
What kind of history of music can you write when there's no music? Odd as it sounds, this is just the question anyone trying to give an account of music in the first thousand years of the Western church will need to ask. For us today, "music" will tend to mean the sounds we hear or the dots and lines on a printed page. If we want to research the music of, say, Mozart, we go to recordings, or to scores—to the permanent traces of the sounds. Yet in the church's first millennium, not only were there no recordings, but for about nine-tenths of the period there were no scores, no written music of any sort. It was around the mid-9th century that we find little scratch marks appearing above written words, signaling pitches of the voice—the first stirrings of notation. Before that, the historian of music is forced to inhabit a world without musical texts.
However we come to terms with this, we are reminded that music, whatever else it is, is not basically a printed score, a fixed "object," a "work" (as we would say today). It is first and foremost something made and heard, something done by (and between) people. Our ancestors were singing and playing music long before they thought about writing it down, long before anyone tried to code it in a script that could be transported from place to place. As Nicholas Wolterstorff insists in Art in Action (and he is hardly alone in this), the arts are best thought of not primarily as works but as actions or practices—we sing praise to God, send wind through tubes, strum a guitar, dance to rave, sing along with U2. What is more, these actions are socially and culturally embedded. The way we make and hear music is profoundly shaped by our relations to others—our social setting, all the way from one-to-one relationships to larger social groupings. And because of this, the way we make and hear music is affected by the patterns of living and thinking that we use to negotiate these relations—"culture" in other words.
So then, what can we study, without musical texts (and without recordings)? What are we to make of the "music" of the first thousand years of the church? The answer, as Christopher Page makes clear in this extraordinary book, is people: through written words (and a little archaeology), we can enter the world of those who made music and heard it, and set what we find against the many-layered social and cultural contexts in which these people lived and moved.
In this book, the focus is on people of a particular type, those whose vocal cords, set in motion by the breath of their lungs, generate sounds with a strange capacity to help participants and listeners resonate with the living God and forge a depth of community unequaled by any other art form—singers, in other words, and specifically singers in Christian worship. It is no accident that the author is founder and director of Gothic Voices, an internationally acclaimed singing group specializing in medieval repertoire, with numerous award-winning recordings to its credit. Page writes as someone who understands singing from the inside.
In The Christian West and its Singers we are offered, in effect, a history of the Western church up until around AD 1000 through the eyes (and ears) of those who sing. This has not been attempted before, and the result is highly compelling, even if often demanding. We begin in the New Testament era and are carried all the way to 12th-century Europe, by which time churches, cathedrals, abbeys, and hospitals across vast tracts of territory had acquired a "soundscape" of vocal music that was integral to the identity of Western Europe.
The book is shrewd and perceptive at numerous levels. Page is well able to see when sizeable theological issues are at stake. He highlights, for example, the way in which early Mediterranean singers seem to have had a vivid sense of the bodily nature of singing, viewing it as a foretaste of the life of the resurrected body: "the use of the voice is one of the principle continuities between the states of bodily life on either side of the grave." Page is also careful not to make strong judgments from flimsy evidence—when a suggestion is made, it remains a suggestion, and does not (as with some historians) turn into an unquestioned premise two paragraphs later. Nevertheless, even his suggestions are argued and backed up with great care—as when he considers the appearance of musical notation: he contends that the first need it satisfied may not have been to store musical entities that were too long or elaborate for memorization, but to encourage a particular elocution of Latin, a type of "musical" speech thought to be in accord with ancient practice.
But what makes Page's contribution especially absorbing is the way in which he shows how the development of singing was intertwined with the immense political, economic, and ecclesiastical currents that swirled through these formative centuries. It is fairly widely accepted, for instance, that what we know as "Gregorian chant" had a significant role to play in the expansion and development of the church in the West. Page traces this story in exhaustive detail, so we are made to see (and indeed, feel) the importance of this particular tradition of sung music with new depth, in terms of both what went into it and what emerged from it. Gregorian chant arose in the late 8th century as part of a re-unification of lands that had been divided after the dissolution of the Roman Empire. The key musical move seems to have come when the Franks imported Roman plainsong, the resulting music spreading outwards "along lines of blood, loyalty and prayer-brotherhood in a kingdom-wide and cooperative enterprise." Gregorian chant is thus actually "Frankish-Roman chant," the result of a cross-cultural enterprise (as we might say today), and one with an astonishing influence. In time, Gregorian chant was to become by far the most influential stream of music in the West. To use Page's word, it "saturated" the hearing of all trained musicians from around AD 1000 to the Reformation, providing the structure, the grammar, the intellectual substructure of Christian singing at every level of the church. Page does not hesitate to underline the unifying social power of this music:
"I listen daily to the sounds of spiritual melodies …. I hear the Masses of holy men in distant lands as if they were close by" is the rapturous claim of Saint Brigid of Kildare …. Rarely has the power of trained singers to evoke a universal Church, knowing neither boundaries of space nor time, been more succinctly expressed.
Toward the end of the book, Page recounts the story of the invention of the stave—the horizontal lines on which notes are written, a device that has become part of the basic "technology" of Western music. The key character here was Guido of Arezzo (c. 991-after 1033), a man of uncommon energy and foresight, whose scheme of codifying musical sounds as a kind of graph quickly won the pope's approval and played no small part in the unification and moral reformation of the church in the decades that followed. Once invented there was no going back. Page presses the point home memorably:
[The stave] provided the means for an aggressively expansionist civilisation to train singers relatively quickly so that the flag of the Latin liturgy could be planted in Spain, in Livonia, in the Holy Land, and in a great many of the larger hospitals and chapels, often in rural or indeed wild locations. There is something to lament here, but also to laud. The world has the Passions of J. S. Bach, and the late quartets of Beethoven, because monks, clergy and knights of the central Middle Ages sought a form of life with a rigour to match their consciences, then drained marshes, took boats along uncharted rivers or attempted to reclaim, at huge cost to themselves and to others, new lands for Christendom.
Sung music, then, far from being simply a trivial adornment to worship, came to play a crucial and constitutive part in the growth and identity of the Western church and of what became "European" culture. If comprehensive studies of this sort are taken seriously, it will be hard for future historians of the church ever again to treat the arts as peripheral froth, mere illustrations thrown up by the more obvious and oft-studied generators of cultural change.
Page commands a breathtaking array of sources. Virtually every sentence bristles with detail and the meticulous care required to negotiate such complex and contested territory. This will make the book somewhat forbidding to the general reader, despite the lavish illustrations. One would wish for more summaries, more in the way of overviews to encourage the novice to the field. Nevertheless, those who allow themselves to be caught up in the flow of this remarkable story will be taken deep into currents that have in so many ways shaped our worship today, and more widely, our church and culture.
Jeremy Begbie is Thomas A. Langford Research Professor of Theology at Duke University, and teaches in the Faculties of Divinity and Music at the University of Cambridge. He is the author most recently of Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (Baker).
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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