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The Mystery of Do-Re-Mi
Q. HORATIUS FLACCUS (HORACE) (65-8 BC)
Ad Phyllidem (Carmen IV.xi) (c.15 BC) [3:52]
Ode to Phyllis (Carmen IV.xi, translated by Stuart Lyons) [3:45]
PAUL THE DEACON (c.720-c.799) / GUIDO D’AREZZO (c.991-c.1050)
Ut queant laxis [0:56]
musical arrangements by Iain Kerr and Stuart Lyons
Christopher Gabbitas (baritone); David Miller (lute)
rec. Royal College of Music, London, 18 December 2006.
SIGNUM SIGCD098 [08:34]

If you have noticed the playing time above – eight minutes thirty four seconds – you will have hazarded a guess that this is not a run-of-the-mill CD. And given that, alongside the short playing time, the purely auditory pleasures to be derived from it are less than wholly exceptional, one may be tempted to dismiss the disc rather peremptorily.

To do so would be wrong; there are other things of profound interest and suggestiveness here. The CD exists to illustrate a thesis argued by Stuart Lyons in his book Horace’s Odes and the Mystery of Do-Re-Mi (Oxbow Books). I haven’t, I regret, read Lyons’s book although I have read and admired his earlier translation of the odes of Horace, and listening to this disc makes me want to read the new book.

My understanding is that Lyons’s new books puts its stress on the idea that Horace was as much a musician and songwriter as a poet pure and simple and that, as such, he was important in the creation of a Latin equivalent to the earlier modes of Greek lyric song. This proposition is then related to a seemingly rather startling speculation: that when Guido d’Arezzo, in the eleventh century, invented the stave and the do-re-mi system of solmization (originally known as ut-re-mi rather than the modern do-re-mi) his real source was not the eighth-century hymn by Paul the Deacon, in praise of St. John the Baptist, the first six half lines of which provided the famous mnemonic:

Ut queant laxis resonare fibris
mira gestorum famuli tuorum,
solve polluti labii reatum,
sancta Iohannes!

Rather, suggests Lyons, Guido d’Arezzo was actually drawing on a setting of Horace’s Ad Phyllidem (Odes, Book IV.9), which survives in a tenth-century Carolingian manuscript, now preserved in Montpellier. Lyons believes that it was this melody that Guido drew on. Not having read Lyons’s book I don’t know whether he argues that the manuscript preserves a melody that survives from Horace’s own time or, more likely, that it was a later creation. Either way, the Montpellier codex certainly preserves one of the earliest surviving settings of a Horatian ode. Guido was, Lyons suggests, attracted to the melody of the setting because, after an initial middle C, each of the five succeeding half lines begins one note higher than the one before.

What we are offered on the CD is, first, a realisation (by Lyons and Iain Kerr) of the Montpellier setting of Horace; second, a performance of Lyon’s translation of the ode in a musical setting based on the Montpellier manuscript, though necessarily somewhat adapted; and, finally, the first verse of the eighth-century hymn in plainchant.

Pleasantly performed by Christopher Gabbitas - of the King’s Singers - and the excellent lutenist David Miller, the results are pleasant and intriguing listening.

As it happens, Arezzo is one of my favourite places in Italy. Walk up the hill from the railway station towards the historic centre and you meet a statue of Guido; since the Horatian ode here sung was probably a kind of birthday poem for his patron Maecenas, and since Maecenas’s family had their background in Arezzo there is an attractive circularity to the ideas and materials presented here.

In truth, however, the CD will only yield its full value, I suspect, if read alongside Lyons’s book; it would appear, in truth, to be designed - or at any rate to function best - as a complement to the book, rather than a fully satisfying independent entity.

Glyn Pursglove

 

 


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