24 June 2011

Ut, Re, Mi
Warning: technical music stuff ahead!

Happy feast of the Birth of St. John the Baptist! Father Z reminds us that the Vespers hymn for today is Ut queant laxis from which the 11th-century Benedictine monk Guido d'Arezzo derived the now-familiar system of "solfege"--ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la, or as Americans and some other English-speakers know it, "Do, re, mi." Each phrase of each verse of the hymn begins one pitch higher than the previous note. The syllables are the first syllable of each phrase of the first verse of the hymn. As Father Z mentions the seventh pitch of the scale, "si" (for some reason transformed to "ti" in English-speaking countries) is probably derived from Sancte Ioannes.

Guido used this system, along with the so-called "Guidonian hand" to teach music to choir boys. He bragged that with his system he could teach boys in a few weeks what it used to take them years to learn. The boys at a monastery or cathedral school were expected to sing with the monks for liturgical services. Although very large choir books from which many people could read at the same time did exist, monks and boys were largely expected to memorize the chants. Guido, with his new system, could teach the boys about interval relationships very quickly, and using his hand as a guide, he could "conduct" them by pointing to the part of his hand that represented the next note they were to sing. Anyone who has seen a children's (or adults'!) choir director mouthing the words at the singers has some idea of how this might work.*

The ut, re, mi system is still used in Europe and in European-style music schools in Asia, South America, and elsewhere. The often don't use the alphabetical system, ABCDEFG, that's common here in America and other English-speaking countries for referring to notes and key signatures. For instance, I bought a CD in France that says "W.A. Mozart: Messe en ut mineur." Not Mass in C minor, but in "ut" minor. Needless to say, their solfege system is "fixed"--that is, Ut=C every time. In America, we often use a "movable" solfege system, in which do is the primary note of whatever key or scale we're working with at the time. In other words, if we are in the key of C, Do=C. But in D, Do=D, in E, Do=E, etc. Where you put your do in a minor scale also depends on what method your teacher uses. In E minor, it could be that Do=E, or maybe Do=G.

Each method has its advantages. Moveable Do is, I think, very useful for beginning musicians. You learn scale degrees and how they relate to each other quickly, so that the same song transposed into a different key doesn't suddenly become a foreign thing. I think this also helps with basic chord relationships. The trouble comes when you start doing music with more complex modulations than simply major key and its relative minor. Fixed Do/Ut is much more useful for complicated music. But Americans plow ahead with Moveable Do, figuring that once you get to that complex music you probably don't need solfege much anymore.

I first encountered the Fixed Ut usage when I was in high school. A disproportionately large part of the 20th century harp repertoire is French, and a lot of it is only available from French publishers. The pedals on the pedal harp, to refresh your memory, are not like the pedals on a piano. They are for tightening and loosening the strings, which changes the pitch of the strings, whether natural, sharp, or flat. So there are seven pedals--one for each note of the scale--and one pedal operates the mechanism for all of the A strings, one for all the C strings, and so on. So, put the pedal in its lowest position, and all the C strings become C-sharp, put a different pedal in its highest position and all the B strings become B-flat, and a third pedal in the middle position and all the F strings will be F-natural.

For some music you can set all your pedals at the beginning and not worry about it, but in other pieces you have to change in the middle because there are accidentals. Sometimes, kind editors will put indications in for where to change the pedals (otherwise you have to write them in yourself). In American music, you'll see, for example, a big "C#" written under the staff, telling you to put the C pedal in the lowest position. But in French music, the same indication will be written "Ut#." I was mystified at first, but now that I am aware of the thousand-year history of solfege, I am tickled every time I see "Ut" written in my music.

So hopefully now you know more about harps and solfege than you already did, or probably ever wanted to know. Happy name day to any Johns or Joannas out there!

*I have actually sung using Guido's method, in a music history class. One of my professors is very hands-on, so to speak, and thinks that the medieval and early-Renaissance methods of teaching are still very useful for teaching the music of those periods, if you want the most period-accurate performance.

1 comment:

Gordon said...

Hey! I just came across your CD and was ripping it into iTunes and thought to come over and say Hi! Long time no see... hope you are well!