SNAILS and SOLFEGE: a St. John’s riff

If these little messages here seem to crawl at a snail’s pace, here in Rome today on the feast of St. John it is the custom to eat snails.  I will be looking snails for supper later in the evening, since this is my "onomastico".  It is nice to have as your Patron the great Baptist, for I get two feasts a year, his Nativity and his Beheading. 

Snails apart, I cannot help but remember a marvelous St. John’s Day when rather than snails I had wonderous mussels with a dear friend, an occasion I would repeat every year, if I could.  In honor of the memory, if I can’t get snails tonight, I will try for mussels or some other mud bug.

For the Vigil of St. John in the old Roman Ritual the priest would once bless bonfires!   This is lovely custom calls to mind that many places celebrated the feasts of saints with great festivity.  By this day all the cuttings and trimmings of the orchards and vineyards were dried and crackly and ready to be burned.  The evening is about as long as the year can offer, so a great party could be had well into the night with much cooking in the open and revelry.  After the usual introduction, the priest would bless the fire:

Lord God, almighty Father, the light that never fails and the
source of all light, sanctify + this new fire, and grant that
after the darkness of this life we may come unsullied to you who
are light eternal; through Christ our Lord.
All: Amen.

It is almost as if the fire, and our celebration, is baptized.  At this point the fire is sprinkled with holy water and everyone sings the hymn Ut quaent laxis which is also the Vespers hymn.

For the feast of St. John in June for centuries the Church has sung at Vespers the hymn beginning Ut queant laxis.  Those of you who are lovers of the movie The Sound of Music will instantly recognize this hymn as the source of the syllables used in solfège or solmization (the use of syllables instead of letters to denote the degrees of a musical scale).  Both the ancient Chinese and Greeks had such a system.   The Benedictine monk Guido d’Arezzo (c. 990-1050) introduced the now familiar syllables ut re mi fa sol la for the tones of the hexachord c to a… or, more modally, the tonic, supertonic, mediant, etc. of a major scale.   The Guidonian syllables derive from the hymn for the feast of St. John the Baptist:

Ut queant laxis resonare fibris
ra gestorum famuli tuorum,
ve polluti labii reatum
Sancte Ioannes.

After the medieval period (when music became less modal and more tonal) to complete the octave of the scale the other syllable was introduced (si – probably taken from S-ancte I-oannes) and the awkward ut was replaced sometime in the mid 17th c. with do (or also doh – not to be confused in any way with the Homeric Simpsonic epithet so adored by today’s youth, derived as it is from the 21st century’s new liturgical focal point – TV) and do came to be more or less fixed with C though in some cases do remains movable.

So, now you know where Doh, Re, Mi comes from!   Build a fire tonight and sing something in honor of St. John!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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One Comment

  1. Andrew says:

    This little commentary is not much about anything, and yet, it is about many things. Above all it is for some reason, very heartwarming. And it reminds me that snail in Latin is “cochlea” and I suspect that “cocleare” (spoon) is derived from the same word because of its shape.

    “Limax” is another word for snail or slug which no doubt comes from “limus” (slime).

    A sea-shell can be a “concha” or a “conchylium”.

    Apicius, the roman gourmet chef mentions various recepies for “cochleas” such as:

    “Sale puro et oleo assabis cochleas. Lasere, liquamine, pipere, oleo suffundis.” (“Laser” is what we call “asafoetida” used these days in Indian restaurants. I have a small bottle of it at home and it’s enough to stink up the whole neighborhood.)

    Or a recipe for “sea-shells” with beans: “Coques. Teres piper, ligusticum, cuminum, coriandrum viridem, suffundis liquamen, vino et liquamine temperabis, mittis in caccabum, adicies oleum . Lento igni ferveat.” (Add this and that and cook it slowly).

    I don’t have any dictionary that would mention a “caccabus” but it can’t be anything else but a “pot” or some kind of a cooking vessel.

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