The Church recently celebrated the feast of the Birth of St John the Baptist, although because of its concurrence with the feast of the Sacred Heart this year, in most places, it was transferred from its very ancient date, June 24th. The traditional hymn for this feast in the Divine Office was composed in the 8th century by a monk of Monte Cassino, Paul the Deacon, who also wrote an important “History of the Lombards”, and also put together the collection of homilies and sermons which forms the traditional body of patristic writings in the Office. William Durandus, who was bishop of the French city of Metz in the later 13th century, and wrote an important commentary on the Roman liturgy, tells a story about why the hymn was composed. (Rationale Divinorum Officiorum, 7, 14) At Easter, Paul was supposed to sing the Exsultet, but had lost his voice, and “wrote the hymn… in honor of John the Baptist that his voice might be restored, …, which he obtained, as it was also restored to Zachariah by the merits of St John.” (Luke 1, 64) Hence the opening words:
“Ut queant laxis / resonare fibris
Mira gestorum / famuli tuorum,
Solve polluti / labii reatum,
So that these thy servants can, with all their voice, sing thy wondrous deeds, clean the blemish of our spotted lips, O Saint John!”
It is not known who composed the melody with which these words are traditionally sung, but this hymn also played an important role in the history of music.
Originally, all liturgical chant was taught and transmitted orally. When it first came to be written down in the 9th century in the notational form known as “neumes”, these were written above the text without a staff, and thus indicated the general form of the melody, but not the pitch, or even the exact notes. (This type of notation was often called “in campo aperto – in an open field.”) Since the tradition of oral transmission was so well-established, these would certainly have sufficed as basic aide-memoires for those who were used to singing everything from memory.
However, it was very time-consuming to learn such a vast repertoire by heart, and already in the ninth century, more precise forms of notation were being developed, which could show absolute pitch by using what we now call a musical staff. This kind of system was popularized in the early 11th century by another monk, Guido of Arezzo, from the abbey of Pomposa on the northern Adriatic coast of Italy. In his treatise Regulae Rhythmicae (“Rules of Music”), he developed a system of musical training based on a form of staff notation. This obviated much of the need for memorization, which in turn gave monks and clergy more time to devote to other fields of study. This system swiftly became very popular; Guido’s four-line staff remained in use for centuries, but was later standardized to the modern five lines.
It was also Guido who noticed that the first note of each half-line of “Ut queant laxis” is one interval higher than the one that precedes it. He therefore named the notes from the syllable with which they are sung in the first stanza, as highlighted above: “ut – re – mi – fa – sol – la.” This forms the basis of the system still used to this very day, although the scale was later increased to seven notes with the addition of “si”, from “Sancte Ioannes.” In Italian, “ut” was changed to “do” to make it easier to pronounce and sing, since words do not end in hard consonants in Italian, a change which came to be widely accepted outside Italy as well, while “si” was changed to “ti” in the English-speaking word in the 19th century to make it stand out more from “sol.”