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Ut Queant Laxis

I spoke of madrigals without first providing Guido d’Arezzo‘s (991/992 – (17 May?) 1050) source, the Ut queant laxis for the well-known ut (do), ré, mi, fa, sol, la, si (ti), as the notes are still named and used in certain national languages and in solfège.

  • Ut queant laxis
  • resonare fibris
  • Mira gestorum
  • famuli tuorum,
  • Solve polluti
  • labii reatum
  • Sancte Iohannes. s+i = si (ti, to distinguish it from ‘c’) 

Nor did I mention that the poem had been written, in Horatian Sapphics, by Paulus Diaconus, the eighth-century historian.  The Ut queant laxis was written for the feast of St. John the Baptist, celebrated on 24 June, near the Summer Solstice, the day of the shortest night (darkness).  The Saint-Jean-Baptiste is marked each year by a bonfire, les feux de la Saint-Jean, and, in Quebec, by displays of fireworks. The Saint-Jean-Baptiste is the official feast day of French-Canadians.

Guido had introduced a group of syllables C-D-E-F-G-A, the hexachord, a mnemonic device.  But Guido noticed that the first syllable of the six phrases of the Ut queant laxis, a latin-language hymn to Saint John, corresponded with his C-D-E-F-G-A set.  Musicians had had difficulty remembering the neumatic notation used in Gregorian chant.  In Gregorian chant the notes are called “neumes.”

So Guido’s immediate purpose was pedagogical.  The do-ré-mi chain was easy to memorize.  It was the familiar Ut queant laxis.  In this regard, Guido resembles Comenius who was also an advocate of simplification.

In short, the do-ré-mi chain is a cultural phenomenon and, therefore, possesses a degree of arbitrariness, which is not the case with the more logical A-B-C-D-E-F-G, starting on the middle C, or ‘do,’ a scale or key that does not have alterations (sharps and flats).  But it has remained useful.

As for the melody of the Ut queant laxis, it would appear it was the melody of Horace‘s “Ode to Phyllis.”

Here is an English translation: “So that your servant may, with loosened voices, resound the wonder of your deeds, clean the guilt four our strained lips, O Saint John!”

St. John the Baptist in Prison by Francesco Barbieri, called Il Guercino (Photo credit: Grassi Studio)

© Micheline Walker
22 November 2011