A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Guido d'Arezzo

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GUIDO D' AREZZO (Guido Aretinus; Fra Guittone; Guy of Arezzo). Though this name is more frequently quoted by musical historians than that of any other writer of equal antiquity, it would be difficult to point to a teacher whose method has been more commonly misrepresented, or whose claim to originality of invention has been more keenly contested. The doubts which have been expressed with regard to the true nature of his contributions to musical science, may be partly accounted for by the ambiguity of his own language and partly by the retirement of his monastic life, which afforded him but little opportunity for making his learning known to the world at large; though, after his death, his fame spread so rapidly that almost every discovery made during the next hundred and fifty years was attributed to him.

Fortunately, the uncertainty which hangs over his system does not—as in the case of Magister Franco—extend to his personal identity. He was born at or near Arezzo, not long before the close of the 10th century; and, in due time, became a Monk of the Order of S. Benedict. An annotation on the back of the oldest known MS. of his 'Micrologus,' which he is generally believed to have written in, or about, the year 1024, asserts that he completed the work in the thirty-fourth year of his age—thus referring us to 990 as the probable year of his birth. His talent must have been very early developed; for, Pope Benedict VIII., hearing that he had invented a new method of teaching Music, invited him to Rome—Baronius says, in 1022—for the purpose of questioning him about it, and treated him with marked consideration, during the short time that he remained in the city. Pope Benedict died in 1024; and his successor, John XIX., after sending three special messengers to induce Guido to return, accorded him a highly honourable reception, on the occasion of his second visit, and consulted him frequently on the details of his method. Guido brought with him, on this occasion, an Antiphonarium, written in accordance with his new system; and the Pope was so struck with this, that he refused to terminate the audience until he had himself learned to sing from it. After completely mastering the system, he desired to retain the learned Benedictine in his service; but Guido, urging his delicate health as an excuse, quitted Rome under promise of returning again during the following winter. In the meantime, he accepted an invitation to the Monastery of Pomposo, in the Duchy of Ferrara, and at the request of the Abbot remained there for some considerable time, for the purpose of teaching his method to the Monks and the children of the Choir. Here he seems to have written the greater part of his works; among them the Micrologus, which he dedicated to Teobaldo, Bishop of Arezzo. Finally, we hear of him as Abbot of the Monastery of Santa Croce, at Avellano, near Arezzo; and there he is believed to have died, about the year 1050.


Guido's works consist of:—

1. The Micrologus; already described in vol. ii. pp. 326, 327.

2. The Antiphonarium; quoted by P. Martini,[1] under the title of Formulæ Tonorum. In some early MSS. this is preceded, by way of Prologue, by—

3. Epistola Guidonis ad Michaelem Monachum Pomposianum; a letter written by Guido, during his second visit to Rome, to his friend, Brother Michael, at Pomposo.

4. De artificio novi Cantus.[2]

5. De Divisione Monochordi secundum Boëtium.[3]

To which may be added the less clearly authenticated works—

6. De sex motibus vocum à se invicem, et dimensione earum.

7. Quid est Musica.

8. Guidonis Aretini de Musica Dialogus. Quid est Musica.

9. De Constitutionibus in Musica.

10. De Tonis.

11. Quid est Musica. (Different from Nos. 7 and 8).

Early MS. copies of the 'Micrologus,' the 'Antiphonarium,' and the 'Epistola ad Michaelem' are preserved at the Vatican, the Paris Library, the British Museum, and in some other large national Collections. These three works were first printed by Gerbert von Hornau,[4] in 1784; and the 'Micrologus' was reprinted, at Treves, by Hermesdorff, in 1876. The MSS. of Nos. 4, and 5, are in the Medicean Library, at Florence. Nos. 6, 7, and 8, are in the Paris Library. No. 7 is also in the Library of Balliol College, Oxford, where it is bound up with a copy of the 'Micrologus.' No. 8, which corresponds with the preceding, in every respect except that of its more prolix title, is also in the Vatican Library.[5] The Oxford copy of this tract was once falsely attributed to S. Odo of Cluny. Nos. 9 and 10 are in the British Museum,[6] bound up with an incomplete copy (Cap. i-xv) of the 'Micrologus.' No. 11, in the Vatican Library, is really a transcript of the 'Enchiridion' of S. Odo.

The principal inventions, and discoveries, with which Guido has been credited, are: the Gamut; the Hexachords, with their several Mutations; Solmisation; the Stave, including the use of Lines, and Spaces; the Clefs; Diaphonia or Discant, Organum, and Counterpoint; the Harmonic Hand; the Monochord; and even the Spinet (Polyplectrum). Kircher gravely mentions not only this last-named invention, but, also, Polyphonia, and the modern Stave of five Lines and four Spaces;[7] and an Italian writer of the 17th century tells us that S. Gregory (Ob. 604) ordained that no other Gamut than that of Guido should be used in the Church![8]

If, by the 'invention of the Gamut,' we are to understand the addition of the note, G, at the bottom of the Scale, it is quite certain that this note was sung ages before the time of Guido. Aristides Quintilianus (flor. circa A.D. 110) tells us that, whenever a note was wanted before the προσλαμβανομενος, (A) of the Hypodorian Mode, it was represented by the recumbent omega (Greek uc omega rotated right.png). S. Odo, writing in the 10th century, represents it, exactly as Guido did, by the Greek gamma (Γ). And Guido himself speaks of it as a modern addition—'In primis ponitur Γ Græcum a modernis adjectum.'

The reconstruction of the Scale itself, on the principle of the Hexachords, is another matter; and, the intimate connection of this, with the process of Solmisation, renders it extremely probable that the two methods were elaborated by the same bold reformer. Now, in his Epistle to Brother Michael, Guido distinctly calls attention to the use of the initial syllables of the Hymn, 'Ut queant laxis,' as a convenient form of memoria technica, and speaks of the method, in terms which clearly lead to the inference that he himself was its inventor: but, he does not mention the Hexachords, in any of his known works; and, when speaking of the substitution of the B rotundum for the B durum, in his 'Micrologus,' he writes in the first and third persons plural with an ambiguity which makes it impossible to determine whether he is speaking of his own inventions, or not; using, in one place, the expression, 'molle dicunt,' and, in another, 'nos ponimus.' Still, it is difficult to read all that he has written on the subject without arriving at the conclusion that he was familiar with the principles of both systems; in which case, the first idea of both must necessarily have originated with him, though it is quite possible that the Mutations[9] by which they were perfected were invented by a later teacher.

Guido's claim to the invention of the Lines and Spaces of the Stave, and of the Clefs (Claves signatæ) associated with the former, is supported by very strong evidence indeed. In his Epistle to Brother Michael, he begins by claiming the new system of teaching as his own: 'Taliter enim Deo auxiliante hoc Antiphonarium notare disposui, ut post hac leviter aliquis sensatus et studiosus cantum discat,' etc. etc.; and then, in the clearest possible terms, explains the use of the Lines and Spaces: 'Quanticumque ergo soni in una linea, vel in uno spacio sunt, omnes similiter sonant. Et in omni cantu quantæcumque lineæ vel spacia unam eandemque habeant literam vel eundem colorem, ita ut omnia similiter sonant, tanquam si omnes in una linea fuissent.' These words set forth a distinct claim to the invention of the red and yellow lines, and the Claves signatæ, or letters indicating the F and C Clefs, prefixed to them; and, upon these, the whole principle of the four-lined Stave depends, even though it cannot be proved to have been in use, in its complete form, until long after Guido's time.[10]

It is impossible that Guido can have invented either Discant, Organum, or Counterpoint, since he himself proposed what he believed to be an improvement upon the form of Diaphonia in common use at the time he wrote,[11] and it was not until a much later period that the Faux Bourdon was supplanted by contrapuntal forms.

The Harmonic or Guidonian Hand, is a diagram, intended to facilitate the teaching of the Hexachords, by indicating the order of the sounds, upon the finger-joints of the left hand.[12]

Page 676 (A Dictionary of Music and Musicians vol 4).png

Guido himself makes no mention of this diagram in any of his writings; but tradition has ascribed it to him from time immemorial under the name of the Guidonian Hand; and Sigebertus Gemblacensis (ob. 1113), writing little more than half a century after his death, tells us that 'Guido affixed six letters, or syllables, to six sounds,' and 'demonstrated these sounds by the finger-joints of the left hand,'[13] thus confirming the tradition which credits him with the triple invention of the Harmonic Hand, Solmisation, and the Hexachords. Moreover, Guido himself writes to Brother Michael of 'things, which, though difficult to write about, are very easily explained by word of mouth;' and, possibly, these may have been among them.

The Monochord was well known in the time of Pythagoras: but Guido insisted upon its constant use; and, as Dr. Burney points out, the instrument he employed must have been a fretted one—like those sometimes used, under the name of 'Intonators,' for our modern singing-classes; since the moveable bridge could not have been shifted quickly enough to answer the required purpose. It was, probably, this circumstance that led to the absurd belief that Guido invented the Spinet.

To sum up our argument. It appears certain that Guido invented the principle upon which the construction of the Stave is based, and the F and C Clefs; but, that he did not invent the complete four-lined Stave itself.

There is strong reason to believe that he invented the Hexachord, Solmisation, and the Harmonic Hand; or, at least, first set forth the principles upon which these inventions were based.

Finally, it is certain that he was not the first to extend the Scale downwards to Γ ut; that he neither invented Diaphonia, Discant, Organum, nor Counterpoint; and, that to credit him with the invention of the Monochord, and the Polyplectrum, is absurd.

[ W. S. R. ]

  1. Saggio di Contrappunto, Tom. 1. p.32.
  2. Ibid. Tom. 1. p. 457
  3. Tom. 1. p. 457; where it is called De Mensura Monochordi.
  4. Scriptores ecclesiastici de Musica sacra. Tom ii.
  5. No. 1191
  6. No. 3199
  7. Musurgia, p. 114.
  8. Regole di Musica. (Rome, 1657.)
  9. See vol. ii. p.439.
  10. See vol. iii. pp. 691–693.
  11. See vol. iv. pp. 612, 613
  12. Dr. Hullah's use of the left hand for an analogous purpose is familiar to everyone.
  13. Chron. Sigeberti, ad ann. 1028.