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Classical 101

Capturing Music: Everything You Need to Know About Early Notation


So you go to the Symphony, your daughter takes piano lessons, you know all about the Beatles, and you've even seen an opera. But what about written music? If you can read it, do you know where it originated and when?

Now there is one source to find all of that information from an engaging author in a volume with vivid images of manuscripts accompanied by a CD with 16 tracks of the music seen in the manuscripts. You can read the original score's neumes and notation while you listen to it being performed.

Best of all, it is written like a winding narrative that embraces the reader's questions and encourages wonder and excitement over how music has progressed and what secrets it leaves behind.

Harvard professor Thomas Forrest Kelly has written a guide to three-quarters of a millennium's worth of music from the Medieval world. Along with numerous full-color images of manuscripts, Kelly's work is accompanied by a crystalline recording of the Boston-based vocal ensemble Blue Heron, directed by Scott Metcalfe. The book, Capturing Music: The Story of Notationdeftly navigates through the innovations of various composers, music theorists, and performers to describe, in very understandable language, where written music originated and what it means for us today.

What Kelly Says About The Beginning We know that the earliest notation was not a system designed so anyone and everyone could read the 'notes'-- which were really more like punctuation or squiggles-- but rather, it was a system of symbols that could help trained singers remember the finer points of music they memorized through years of training. This early notation then progressed, lost some aspects of performance quality, gained aspects of clarity, and evolved to form today's system which allows any trained reader to perform a work without having heard it before. Sight-reading would have never existed without the advancements made by people such as Guido of Arezzo or Phillipe deVitry. Kelly gives a careful examination in each chapter of who made the advancements, and exactly why they were necessary from a performance point of view. One of the finer points of Kelly's writing is how he examines what was also lost in this search for specificity. In effect, we have to read between the lines to understand how the music would have sounded and what it would have meant to Medieval audiences. Throughout the book, Kelly also gives insight into what theorists were saying about notation and performance practice, and how it looked at every step. In her review of Kelly's newly released work, Musicologist Anna Zayaruznaya, Ph.D. provides a diagram of Kelly's explanation of the history of notation organized by century. We know that notation begins with words only, just as 8th Century singers would have seen in their choir books, and it then progresses to include more precise information about pitch and duration. 00000178-6a23-ddab-a97a-6a3ba6980000 (Okay, they would not have been singing Beatles lyrics in the 8th Century, but Zayaruznaya's fine image demonstrates the level of familiarity Medieval singers would have had with the text of the Psalms.) Who's Who? Along with the engaging images and recording, the book gives detailed insight into the lives of some of the most important minds of Medieval Europe. Individuals such as Isidore of Seville (my personal favorite), St. Gregory (the legendary mouthpiece of plainchant), Leoninus and Perotinus of Notre Dame, Franco of Cologne, and Phillipe de Vitry. These men were monks, theologians, mathematicians, historians, and composers, and their biographical details give merit to their work and its meaning for Medieval society. Without a thorough understanding of their context in society and history, their achievements would be little more than rote facts to memorize. Kelly does a fine job of making them into real, flesh and blood people who listened and sang for the same reasons we do today. So why is it important to know about music we no longer read and composers who have been dead for a thousand years?  To that I can simply quote Czeslaw Milosz just as Thomas Kelly did in his fine book: "You asked me what is the good of reading the Gospels in Greek. I answer that it is proper that we move our finger along letters more enduring than those carved in stone, and that, slowly pronouncing each syllable, We discover the true dignity of speech." -Czeslaw Milosz, "Readings" taken from page 25 of Capturing Music

Honestly, Capturing Music: The Story of Notation was my favorite book from 2014.