Music Media Review Print

How We Got our Music Writing System

Greensboro Native, a UNC Grad, Explains Music's Written Records

December 19, 2014 - Williamsburg, MA:

Thomas Forrest Kelly, Capturing Music; The Story of Notation, New York and London: W.W. Norton & Co., © 2015, Pp. xviii + 238; incl. a CD, Blue Heron, Scott Metcalfe, dir., male voices, Laura Jeppeson, vielle, Scott Metcalfe, harp and vielle, Charles Weaver, lute, © 2014, 17 Tr., TT 68:39, $45.00.

Kelly, a Greensboro native and a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, which gave him a Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2005, is now a professor occupying an endowed position at Harvard. He is also a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres of the French Republic and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the American Academy in Rome. He has held awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities and from the American Council of Learned Societies. You might justifiably fear that a book by such a distinguished individual would be inaccessible to and incomprehensible for you, but you would be seriously wrong. Kelly has digested the scholarship and expertise and written a text aimed at the general reader who is curious but has no background in the subject matter. You do not even need to know how to read a music score to understand the book, and it will also not teach you how to do so.

The book is a relatively lavish product, printed on glossy paper, similar to a "coffee-table book," albeit at c. 6 by 9 inches not coffee-table-book sized. The title page has a frame based on decorative elements found in a manuscript. A portion of this decorative element forms the left border of the Table of Contents page with the letter "C" being a reproduction of a decorated "C" from a manuscript. Both are printed on a colored paper that suggests a sheet of parchment. The Preface is printed on white inside a frame consisting of vines and leaves on the same "parchment" ground. Initial pages of the Introduction and most chapters are printed on the same paper and have a right border reproducing the same decorative element as that of the Title page. Full-page color photo reproductions of manuscript illustrations face most of these pages; a photo of a statue faces one. Sidebars, partial-, full-page, or two-page spreads, are also printed on a "parchment" background and boxed in frames based on a different decorative element found in manuscripts. Final blank pages of chapters 1 and 4 are "parchment" paper, continuing the manuscript conceit.

The text is divided into an Introduction and seven chapters, the later half tending to be longer and a bit more complex than the earlier ones. Virtually all the illustrations, full or partial page or small excerpts – most coming from medieval manuscripts, precisely identified in the captions by their physical location and cataloguing number as well as their author and the work – are in color. There are a few color photographs of buildings (exteriors and interiors), statues, and bronze plaques. A few transcriptions of scores and all conversions to modern musical notation are the sole illustrations in black and white.

Sound is an ephemeral phenomenon; it happens at a specific time and place, and once it is made, it disappears; there is no perceptible permanent record of it in the natural world. A written word is the form a spoken one has been given in the code of its language; the system for recording it has evolved over millennia and is still evolving. You can read it and then speak the word even if you have never heard it before. A music score is a written record of sounds that you can reproduce after reading the music writing system, even if you have not heard that tune before. This system developed much later than the one for written language, beginning only in the 10th century; it has been essentially fixed and stable since the end of the 16th, i.e., before Shakespeare died, but much of it was already set before Chaucer died in 1400. Today, of course, it is possible to create the score first; it was not in the Middle Ages, although it was possible to imagine a story and write it up.

Kelly's writing style is conversational, as if he were talking directly to the reader, but his approach is explanatory, not pedagogical, and very entertaining. There is no "talking down," even though he assumes that the reader knows absolutely nothing about the subject. Indeed, there are often touches of humor, questions posed directly to the reader, and anachronistic analogies to modern cultural items to help the reader readily understand. You can hear a sample of Kelly's style and some samples from the CD by listening to a c. 12-minute interview about the book on Radio Boston. In spite of the unfamiliar and technical nature of its subject, the book is an easy and engaging read. Not only will you learn how our music writing system evolved, but you will also have a capsule history of the Middle Ages as you travel through the centuries. You will be surprised to discover how up-to-date medieval people were in some ways, and with the CD, you will be able to hear some of their world come alive and follow some of the reproduced medieval scores as you listen.

You will learn (pages 88-89) that 700 years before the current quartet of women who sing medieval music beautifully there was another Anonymous 4, an Englishman who studied at the Univertsité de Paris in the 13th century and who wrote about Leoninus and Perotinus, who were developing polyphony, music for 2, 3, or 4 voices, each with its own line of score, with the original chant in the line on the bottom (though it was generally a tenor, not a bass), at the cathedral of Notre Dame in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. You will also learn (pages 68-69) the origin of the names of the notes of the scale: ut (later do, but the French still use ut), ré, mi, etc., and you won't have to take notes as Anonymous 4 did to remember the details, because there are entries in the Index to help you relocate them in the text. There's a boxed sidebar (page 72) to show the white and black keys of the piano keyboard, i.e., whole and semi-tones, and explain why they are that irregular way.

The track listing for the CD is found on pages ix-xi, with locations for each piece by illustration plate or page numbers where the manuscript of the score appears in the text, but no timings are given. Texts and English translations are found in the appendix on pages 209-220. Notes, most being references to the sources of quotations, which do not have footnote numbers in the text and are found on the pages indicated at the head of the note, are given on pages 221-225. Credits are on page 227, and the index on pages 229-238.

The previous major book on this subject is The Notation of Polyphonic Music 900-1600 by Willi Apel, also a then professor at Harvard [Cambridge, MA: The Medieval Academy of America, 1941]. By 1961 it was already in its fifth edition, having been revised and augmented, arriving at nearly 500 pages of much smaller print. It has been the "textbook" on the subject, so to speak, treating it in depth, but it is written for the expert and the researcher and is more of an encyclopedia, organized by category, than the narrative history its title implies. It has hundreds of illustrations, including some from the same manuscripts, and charts and tables, but all are in black and white; there is not a single color photographic reproduction of a manuscript. It would be a place to go for the reader of Capturing Music who wants seriously to explore or to learn more details about a specific portion of its content, but is far more challenging to read and digest.

It is also worth noting that W. W. Norton is the publisher of the important textbook, well illustrated but with nothing in color: Richard H. Hoppin, Medieval Music, © 1978, Pp. xvi + 566, with a paperback companion Anthology of Medieval Music, Pp. xiv + 177, edited by him, the firm's initial offering in its Norton Introduction to Music History series, a pair that I have owned since it came out (when the hardback book cost $9.95; the paperback version now lists for $64.75!), so Capturing Music is right in line with the firm's efforts and experience. This work would also constitute a more extensive but still introductory follow-up for a reader captivated by Kelly's.

As a bona fide albeit not currently practicing medievalist, I cannot recommend this book highly enough, not only for others like me but for anyone who wants to understand the evolution of music in that time and how it was slowly but surely written down in an increasingly precise system which ultimately became the one we in the Western world still use today – so medieval music can be sung today as it likely was heard then. It offers a wealth of information, condensed into an eminently readable and thoroughly enjoyable, gorgeously presented, story for the curious or interested layman.

Here is a link to another, more detailed review of the book by a musicologist who studies medieval music; this contains a different video of Kelly talking about his book, including about the aforementioned piano keyboard.