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Guido d'Arezzo, revolutionary innovator
Benedictine monk, musician and theorist, to whom we owe an epochal turning point in the history of music and culture: the invention of modern written musical notation

TO Guido d'Arezzo, Benedictine monk, musician and theorist, we owe an epochal turning point in the history of music and culture: the invention of modern written musical notation, an innovation of historical significance, which profoundly affected the development of Western musical civilization as we know it today .
By anchoring the volatility of sounds to the stability of the written page, by freeing the musical language from the precariousness of the oral tradition, two things became possible that in our eyes seem obvious but then they were not at all: on the one hand the musical piece could be fixed on the page like this as the author had created it, without the risk of modifications or distortions due to mnemonic failures of the performer, and above all it could be preserved and handed down beyond the contingency of everyday use.
Genres, forms and individual works from then on would have been preserved even after they fell into disuse. Without this passage, the musical heritage as we know it would not even exist, and we would not know the history of music.

From the point of view of performance and learning, the innovation introduced by Guido d'Arezzo was no less extraordinary: the writing of sounds made it possible to read and reproduce music by singing or playing without having ever listened to it before, and to transcribe staring at it on the page, a melody that had been heard. In the specific case of ecclesiastical singers, it was no longer necessary to have a teacher to learn each new composition, and above all the training necessary to train a cantor, up to then ten years, was reduced to a year or two.

Guido d'Arezzo, also known as Guido Monaco, was born around 991-992; the place of birth remains uncertain, and in the absence of documentary sources, the most accredited hypotheses are Arezzo, Ferrara, Pomposa, Talla. Even the place and date of his disappearance cannot be documented with certainty - an uninterrupted tradition from the sixteenth century, he is the prior of the monastery of Fonte Avellana (PU), where he died around 1050, but we have no documentary attestations after 1033.

Gui l'Arétin Guido d'Arezzo

However, it seems certain that Guido was first a monk in the Abbey of Pomposa, where he took care of teaching music to his brothers, thus having the opportunity to deal with the difficulties that the monks encountered in learning and remembering the chants of the Gregorian tradition. It is plausible that from here he began his path that would have led him to a totally new teaching method, with the codification of modern musical notation.

Perhaps due to some hostility on the part of the abbey environments reluctant to his innovations that would have made singing and music within the reach of a much wider circle, Guido moved to the ancient seat of the Cathedral of Arezzo, where under the protection of Bishop Tedaldo (1023-36) continued his studies and his activity as a singing instructor in the local schola cantorum.

To the bishop he dedicated his most famous treatise, the Micrologus, which together with the skill of the Arezzo singers he instructed with the new method, quickly gave him widespread notoriety throughout Italy. Guido's growing fame meant that he was invited to Rome by Pope John XIX (Roman of the Counts of Tusculum, in office 1024 - 1032) to present his method, probably obtaining recognition and perhaps an invitation to instruct the Roman clergy.

Apart from the attestation of 1033 in Arezzo, we have no other certain information about Guido, but his writings remain, which testify to a crucial turning point in the history of music: the aforementioned Micrologus de Discipline Artis Musicæ, the Regulæ rythmicæ, the Prologus in Antiphonarium, L'Epistle to Michaelem.

La mano guidoniana

The four writings are transmitted in agreement, albeit with notable internal variations, as a compact corpus under his name, from nearly seventy codices copied between the end of the 11th and the 16th centuries. The numerous copying, commentaries and frequent citations of his works make him the most widespread and studied theorist in the Middle Ages after Boethius, and procured him undisputed authority up to the threshold of the modern age.

Previous to Guido, there had been attempts at musical writing, but it is to him that the introduction of the tetragrammaton is attributed, the musical staff composed of four horizontal lines marked with key letters, to indicate precisely the pitch of the sounds. This type of notation became the basis of the current one (the tetragrammaton will then be replaced by the pentagram, by Ugolino da Orvieto, circa 1380 - post 1457). 

The most important didactic novelty he introduced is instead the solmisation method, ancestor of solfeggio. To facilitate the singers, he used the system of analogy: the sounds contained in an already known melody are taken as a model to find the intonation of another melody. In this way we practiced to distinguish and intonate the different intervals.

The pupil had to learn the exact intonation of a six-note ascending scale, the so-called natural hexachord. To remember them, the sounds were associated with the initial syllables of the first six hemistichs of the Hymn to St. John, by Paolo Diacono (about 720 - 799): UT queant laxis - KINGsonare fibris | MEra gestorum - DOESmuli tuorum | SOLve polluti - THEREbii reatum - Sancte Iohannes, (So that they may sing - with free voices - the wonders of your deeds - your servants, - erase sin - from their unclean lips, - or St. John) whose melodic phrases (perhaps composed ad hoc or adapted by Guido himself) each begin on a higher degree than the previous one. Thus, the intonation of the individual sounds associated with the syllables (Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La) it remained more permanently etched in memory and could be recalled. An important innovation, since without a fixed pitch instrument as an absolute reference, it was almost impossible to remember the sound of a note by releasing it from the song in which it appeared.

L'inno Ut queant laxis in notazione quadrata.

The syllables gave the name to the first six musical notes (Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La) while the name of the note Sthe it was later obtained from the initial letters of the words Sancte Iohannes. The term Ut for euphonic reasons a few centuries later it was replaced with the Do; traditionally the change is attributed to the scholar and music theorist Giovanni Battista Doni (Florence 1594 - 1647), who would have used the first syllable of his surname

Guido d'Arezzo is also attributed the so-called Guidonian hand or harmonic hand, a mnemonic method used in the Middle Ages to help singers in the sight reading of a piece of music.

In the manuscripts it is represented through the drawing of a real hand, where the individual phalanges and the relative joints correspond to tones and semitones.

The Guidonian hand it is borrowed from memorization techniques which had had various applications since late antiquity. It consists of the pattern of the left hand on whose fingers, tips and phalanges the names of the notes are written in their own order of succession. Each phalanx indicates one of the twenty sounds into which the scale of the Guidonian hand was divided. The students learned to sing following the instructions of the teacher who, with the index finger of his right hand, paused on the phalanges of the left hand, indicating the notes. The harmonic hand was therefore a useful didactic tool, which facilitated the learning of the letters of the musical range and the relative syllables of the solmisation, associating them one by one, with a spiral movement, to the joints and ends of the fingers. Reproduced numerous times in medieval and Renaissance music treatises, it became a kind of emblem of musical education.

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