Monk’s music echoes in award-winning book

Special to Western NewsWestern musicologist James Grier was awarded the prestigious Margaret Wade Labarge Prize for his book Ademarus Cabannensis, Monachus et Musicus (Brepols, 2018) about the musical life and legacy of of medieval monk Adèmar de Chabannes.

Power, intrigue, religion, ambition, politics, and holy forgery.

The life of medieval monk Adèmar de Chabannes had it all. While you couldn’t have invented a better storyline than the reality Adèmar experienced 1,000 years ago, his mark on the music world revolutionized how people write, read and perform music.

And for his efforts to bring that story to life, Western musicologist James Grier has been awarded the prestigious Margaret Wade Labarge Prize for his book Ademarus Cabannensis, Monachus et Musicus (Brepols, 2018) about the musical life and legacy of Adèmar.

The Music History professor is the first repeat winner of the prize, awarded annually by the Canadian Society of Medievalists to the best book published by a Canadian medievalist in any discipline. He previously won for his earlier writings about the monk.

While poring through 1,000-year-old folios in France, Grier was first to discover that the 11th-Century monk had, in his own hand, written musical notes (neumes) above chants he composed and scribed. These marks aligned precisely along a vertical axis to indicate by exact musical interval where the pitch should rise and fall; it was the precursor to today’s musical staff and marked the start of the spread of musical literacy.

The idea that a musician who had never before seen or heard a specific melody could now read and sing it as the composer had intended is “an absolutely enormous step,” Grier said. “This (importance) is impossible to overstate.”

Much of this innovation came about because Adèmar – an accomplished historian and scribe ­– was thwarted in his ambition to become head of a monastery and refocused his energies towards his musical gifts.

Each chapter of Grier’s book, most of it written in France within arm’s reach of the original Adèmar folios, covers a different aspect of the monks’ musical life: liturgy compiler, music scribe, composer and singer.

Medieval music script

Special to Western NewsAn example of the earliest musical notation pioneered by medieval monk Ademar de Chabannes. The marks above the Latin words shows singers precisely how the pitch should rise or fall.

Adèmar was born in 989 and as a boy was made an oblate to the Abbey of Saint-Cybard in Angoulême, with the family’s expectation he would become a monk and might one day rise to power as its abbot. But those hopes were dashed when the Count of Angoulême handed leadership to someone else.

(The Count later died under mysterious circumstances, under a cloud of family rivalries and allegations of murder, witchcraft, poisoning – “all that kind of stuff,” Grier said. “We like to think it was an older, simpler and purer time – don’t think so.”)

Adèmar evidently figured he would have better chances at the Abbey of Saint-Martial in Limoges, where he made it his mission to elevate the abbey’s namesake.

Undeterred by evidence suggesting Saint Martial was born 200 years or more after the birth of Jesus, Adèmar forged and shared documents to ‘prove’ Martial had been present at the at the biblical Last Supper. The whole community rejoiced with a grand Saint-Martial feast – complete with a fresh Adèmar-composed liturgy.

The liturgy was significant beyond what its listeners could imagine – it included the ground-breaking ‘heighting’ musical notations that Grier would recognize more than 1,000 years later.

But the contemporary celebration was short-lived. In mid-performance, a monk from a rival order leaped to his feet and denounced the whole event as heretical make-believe. (“You can’t make this stuff up,” noted Grier.) Adèmar fled back to Angoulême.

So, instead of rising to the position of abbot, which likely would have halted his prolific musical output, Adèmar continued to scribe, write and compose.

Grier’s discoveries have led to another 400 Adèmar-notated music folios being attributed to the monk.

Music was a way not only to celebrate faith but a way to communicate directly with the masses outside the monastery. Adèmar may not have achieved the status he sought in life but his writings in history, liturgy and music left clues he was clearly aiming to be remembered in posterity, Grier said.

“Writing is power,” Grier noted. “He’s already thinking, ‘There are going to be people who will be reading this long after I’m gone.’”

Grier is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and taught at Yale University for seven years before coming to Western in 1997. He has held a Killam Research Fellowship and Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Council of Learned Societies for his research on the foundations of musical literacy.