Sunday, 24 June 2007

John the Baptist and Julie Andrews

The Office Hymn for today's Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist has an unexpectedly glamorous history that takes it to Hollywood. Ut queant laxis was written at the end of the 8th century by Paul the Deacon. The first verse translates:

Unloose, great Baptist, our unfettered lips
That with enfranchised voice we may proclaim
The miracles of thy transcendent life,
Thy deeds of matchless fame.

It was noted by Guido of Arezzo, an Italian Monk living at the turn of the eleventh century, that each note commencing a phrase in the hymn begins one note higher than the last. Until that time, there had been no accurate or systematic system for writing down music - and most tunes would have been remembered simply by ear.

So Guido took the Office Hymn of St John, wrote out a stave, and decided to call each note by the initial syllable of the phrases of the hymn, thus:

UT queant laxis REsonare fibris MIra gestorum FAmuli tuorum SOlve pollutis LAbii reatum

Or, ut-re-mi-fa-so-la which (with 'do' replacing 'ut') became the basis of our western music notation, and the eventual cause of Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music!


Anonymous said...

Guido of ArEzzo (or Guido d'ArEzzo), I think, Monsignore! (

Udge said...

Well, I never knew that! Thank you for making my Sunday evening.

John the organist said...

You learn something every day! So that would explain the Sund of Music costumes at Vespers - only kidding!

Mark Langham said...

Ooops - slip of the keyboard. Thanks, mg, will amend!