With a title like The Christian West and Its Singers: The First Thousand Years, one might infer this to be a volume for specialists. And yes, that is true, but we must eagerly assert (and many reviewers agree) that this book reaches out to all sorts of readers. It’s accessible, beautiful, and even–dare we say it–fascinating. In an age where more and more academically-minded books are relegated to the realms of print-on-demand and e-readers, The Christian West and Its Singers has the further distinction of being handsomely produced and finely illustrated on high quality stock. And did we mention it’s clothbound? Value abounds. Here’s hoping it’s not the last of a dying breed, and may the second thousand years be just as fine.
The Christian West and Its Singers: The First Thousand Years by Christopher Page
Reading this account of liturgical singing in the early Church, one marvels at the detective work of Dr. Page, a reader in Medieval Literature and Musicology at Cambridge. No musical scores survived this period (staff notation itself was first developed in the 11th century, as an aid to church singers) and our knowledge of early liturgical practices is decidedly sketchy. But Page ferrets out bits of evidence from unlikely sources—funerary epitaphs, cathedral architecture, fragmentary chronicles, saints’ lives—to construct a fascinating picture of how the Church’s musical ministry emerged, and flourished. As he recreates the social context of psaltes, lectors, cantors, monks, and scholae cantorum (the specialized groups who originated Gregorian chant), Page gives us “people, real flesh and blood,” as one reviewer notes. “We have a full list of those who gathered for a Eucharist at Abitina in North Africa in February 304, and what they sang before they were marched off to be martyred.” There are glimpses of early talent scouting, with priests on the lookout for musical ability among orphaned boys, and of outright jealousy: one 10th-century composer “studied music in secret, on account of the envious.” Enhancing the book’s exhaustive research and literary pleasures are color photographs of mosaics, tombs, landscapes, and medieval cathedrals, all on art-quality paper.