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Melodies that are sweeter

30 November 2010

Not just unheard: not even written down, says Andrew Davison


CHRISTOPHER PAGE may be familiar to readers of the Church Times not as a writer, but as the director of the vocal group Gothic Voices. Page and Gothic Voices have devoted themselves to vocal music too early to appeal to a non-specialist audience.

In the recording studio and the concert hall, they have become leading interpreters. Their debut album of 1984 remains the one recording of music written before 1400 which many people possess: a Gramophone Award-winning disc of music by Hildegard of Bingen, “A Feather on the Breath of God”.

Preparing to perform music from this period presents no small task to the musicologist; many decisions must be made in order to translate the surviving written sources into something that a contemporary artist could sing. But that is as nothing compared with the task that Page has set himself with this book.

The Christian West and its Singers will no doubt become the definitive history of Christian singing in the first millennium AD. When it comes to the history of singing, we might think it a disadvantage to write about the period before recorded music; in writing about the first Christian millennium, Page lacks even written music. On top of that, during this period the work of singers was at best taken for granted and at worst looked down on. Consequently, they do not feature particularly often in written sources.

Page’s investigations into the earliest “Christian ministry of ritual song” therefore represent historical detective work of the greatest ingenuity. It seems that there is no end to his cunning. He works with letters and theological treatises, the proceedings of church councils, funeral epitaphs, frescoes, and even with quirks in translations of the Bible. (Jerome’s deviations from the Old Latin suggest that the development of the office of cantor may have been almost as early in the West as in the East.)

The story emerges from points of detail that could easily be overlooked. This detail is both the book’s strength, and its weakness, for the general reader. Those who persevere will come across fascinating insights: that the lector familiar to us as the ancient precursor of the modern-day reader could be a singer, and perhaps often was; that singing may for a time have been accompanied by dance; that it may have been the singing of Latin which preserved it from transformation into a dialect; and that the same dynamics of locality and centralisation as characterise the liturgical intrigues of contemporary Catholicism are as much a feature of the first millennium as the third.

Readers who love to see a historical puzzle put back together will find much to satisfy and impress them in this book. That said, it hovers at the cusp of being compelling and being overwhelming. It is primarily for those who are interested in two or three of the following: singing, the Early Church, early (or very early) music, the development of the liturgy, or the so-called “Dark Ages”. For an enormous, lavishly illustrated book, it is almost impossibly cheap at £30; but it is likely to be too detailed for the more general reader.

That said, this is one of those books that should make us glad simply because it exists. Singing is important. Christians, since their earliest history, have known that singing is supremely suitable “to laud a divine power and to intensify the bonds of community”. And, as Page also points out, something as bodily as singing is apt for the religion of the incarnation.

The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is Tutor in Doctrine at Westcott House, Cambridge.

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