Picture this: We are in Italy in the beginning of the 11th century. Specifically, we are in Tuscany and the little city of Arezzo which is in the center of Italy. It’s spring and already the sun is shinning. It’s warm enough to walk around wearing a light jacket. As you stroll around the medieval streets of the city, the smell of bloomed lilacs along with the smell of freshly baked break hit your nose. And then you hear it: a sole voice singing (play audio)↓
Ut queant laxis
Ut queant laxis
Thankfully, you’ll very well versed in Latin and immediately understand that the lyrics of Ut queant laxis translate to:
So that your servants can sing with their voice your wonderful feats, clear their lips that are stained with guilt, oh Saint John!
You walk towards the direction of the voice and you see a sole church among the traditional houses. You enter through the small worn out door and there, in the darkness of the abbey, you see a monk.
Hi. Who are you?
I’m Guido. I’m Guido from Arezzo. Si, signore, Guido d’Arezzo.
And what was that you were singing? It was beautiful.
That is a hymn to Saint John. It was written by Paulus Diaconus in the 8th century and I set it to music. I love teaching choristers how to sing chants, but it’s really hard for them to remember the melodies. Therefore, I use this song as a mnemonic. I’ve named our 6 notes out of the first syllable of each line and I’ve composed my hymn such that these syllables, also, fall on their respective notes. So, ut, re, mi, fa, sol, and la.
This is very interesting Guido. But aren’t there 7 notes?
Ah, yes, my friend. But this is medieval Italy. For now, we only use 6 notes and we call them the hexachord. The 7th note “Si” won’t be added until the 16th century by Giovanni Battista Doni. Giovanni will be nice enough to use the initials of Sancte Iohannes to name the 7th note.
Let me ask you one last question. In my time, we use do instead of “ut”, and ti instead of “si”. Do you happen to know how these came along?
Dear Giovanni thought that “ut” is hard to sing and instead turned it into “do” which is an open syllable. Good call there. And in the 19th century, a wonderful music teacher in England, Ms. Sarah Ann Glover, turned “si” into “ti” so that all notes started with a difference consonant. You see, we already had “sol” starting with an “s.”
Wonderful story Guido. You’re pretty cool for a medieval Benedictine monk!