"a little bird told me…"

St. Gregory the Great fresco detail, Church of St. Rupert, Weißpriach, Austria. Photographed at the church by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

Yesterday, I just started reading in earnest the titanic, 5-volume, 3,856-page Oxford History of Western Music by Richard Taruskin. So far, I’m finding it fascinating because I am an arch-dork about music. One tidbit I’m particularly tickled by was this account of the origin of the idiom “a little bird told me:”

[A book of plainchant] could not have existed in St. Gregory’s day, because there would have been no way of putting music into it. […] By the ninth century, however, the legend of Pope Gregory as composer of what has been known ever since as “Gregorian chant” was firmly in place. It was propagated not only in literary accounts like that of John the Deacon but also in an iconographic or pictorial tradition that adapted a motif already established in Roman illuminated manuscripts containing Gregory’s famous Homilies, or sermons, on the biblical books of Job and Ezekiel. According to this tradition, the pope, while dictating his commentary, often paused for a long time. His silences puzzled the scribe, who was separated from Gregory by a screen. Peeping through, the scribe beheld the dove of the Holy Spirit hovering at the head of St. Gregory, who resumed his dictation only when the dove removed its beak from his mouth. (It is from such representations of divine inspiration that we get our expression, “A little bird told me.”)

Taruskin, Richard. Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press.

Some other little tidbits I’ve enjoyed from this first section:

  • The word noon comes from the monastical service held at 3pm called “none,” from the word for nine (the ninth hour since waking at 6am). On why the 3pm service became our name for the 12pm hour? Taruskin: “[it’s] just one of those things.”
  • For the very first time I actually understood what the Holy Roman Empire was.
  • Notated plainchant (which everyone but historians just think of as “Gregorian chant”) was adapted from monastic/ascetic practices, so despite what pop culture and our own filling in the blanks might suggest, all around the church there was instrumental music, ensembles/orchestras, choirs, bands, and music with many harmonies and parts. Plainchant for church use was designed to sound ancient and primitive. If you’ve ever been to a church service with chant and felt a shiver of something primal and magical down your spine, that’s exactly what the church hierarchy hoped might happen… in the 7th century.

Further reading, for the interested: https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/a-most-successful-campaign-of-misinformation-or-listen-to-the-birdie/

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