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Commentary

TWENTY SOMETHING: The first notes: when music and prayer converge

From the beginning, there was music. It signaled the parade of life — comings and goings, mornings and evenings. The chirping of birds. The clatter of dishes. The croaking of frogs.

Guido Monaco, an 11th century Italian, loved it all – especially the chanting of monks.
It confirmed what he had always sensed: Sometimes, music isn’t simply music. It is more. It is prayer.

The passionate Catholic was drawn to religious life, studying to become a Benedictine monk at the Pomposa Abbey on the Adriatic coast. With its rugged cliffs, lush groves and turquoise waters, the beautiful setting kindled Guido’s spiritual fervor. He knew where it came from. Singing felt like the best way to offer his thanks.

But learning the hymns and harmonies that stirred his soul was hard. They had to be memorized – there was no written system for musical notation – and it often took months.

As Guido poured over the manuscripts in the abbey’s legendary library, he wondered: Why couldn’t music be written down and read like the words in a book?

One day, while practicing his hymns, Guido realized he was singing six basic tones. No matter the melody, no matter how high or low he sang, the same tones repeated themselves. He took a piece of parchment and drew six marks – each one stacked higher than the one before.

Now to name them. Guido studied a sentence in his favorite hymn to St. John: “In order for the servants to sing the wonders of your deeds, dissolve the defect on the weak lip, St. John.” This was the longing of his heart: to more perfectly praise the Creator of all the beauty.

Guido used the first syllable of each Latin word – ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la – to name the six tones. He sang them out loud, raising his voice step by step. If every song could be written down in this way, people could learn to read music! They could know the correct melody to sing even if they had never heard it before!

His heart raced.

His fellow monks were less excited. One reprimanded him: spend less time thinking up silly ideas and more time praying.

But Guido’s dream of sharing music more readily never left him. Bishop Theobald of Arezzo visited the abbey, heard about Guido’s passion for music and invited him to come train the choir at his cathedral. The bishop was dazzled by Guido’s new method of musical notation and encouraged him to try it out with the cathedral singers. Within days, they had mastered hymns they had never heard before.

It worked!

The bishop urged Guido to share his revolutionary idea in a book. Pope John XIX summoned the monk, eager to see it himself.

The pope recognized what was before him: the invention of a music notation, what was and would remain the only language common to all humanity. A love of music that sprang from a love of the Lord.

Eventually the first note was changed to do and a seventh note, ti, was added. But Guido’s system endured.

As we sing Christmas carols this month, may we remember the earnest monk who embraced the transcendentals of our Catholic faith: truth, goodness and beauty. They come from God and spill over into everything He created.

One could spend a lifetime pondering their delicate interplay, like snowflakes glittering in the sun. We may first identify beauty, but it is goodness too. We might sense a truth, but beauty is in its core. We are drawn to goodness because it contains truth.

This endless loop comes from God and points us back to him. We need not fully grasp it, but we can feel it and follow it. And the gratitude that pours out will make a beautiful sound.

Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn.