Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

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Composer Biography: Odo of Cluny (c878-942)

Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

You know how there are some things that seem like they’ve always existed, like running water, paved roads, or sharp knives? Well, once upon a time, someone came up with those ideas. Odo of Cluny (also Oddo, Odon, or Eudes) is the clever fellow who named the musical notes after letters of the alphabet. In his original version, he used all capital letters and all the letters A-Z, and then started over again with lower-case letters. They didn’t have any instruments that could play more notes than that, so he didn’t have to come up with more. (That’s right, the piano didn’t exist yet, and neither did the organ, harpsichord, virginal, or any other melodically percussive instrument. There were harps, but they tended to be small, only 22 strings or so, not the big extravagant things you see in the orchestra pit. But I digress). Odo was also the first to identify the note B-flat. That’s right, no one had identified it before. They’d made the sound, but remember, solfeggio hadn’t been invented yet either (see my blog Composer Biography Guido D’Arezzo) so they just noticed that a certain interval was occasionally not where they thought it would be. Odo used a rounded B (called b rotundum) for a flatted note and a square-edged B (called b quadratum) for a natural, shapes that have persisted into modern music notation. Isn’t that nifty? It’s impossible to tell if the B-flat was an innovation of the 9 th or 10 th century; we only know that it was documented then. There’s some evidence of E-flat and F-sharp, but there’s no documentation of it, beyond the obvious modality of the music itself. Odo was the son of a feudal lord at Deols, near Le Mans, and got his early education at the court of Fulk the Good, who was the Count of Anjou, and William the Pious, who was duke of Aquitaine. Other sources say that Odo was the son of a nobleman (although they don’t list his rank) who lived in Alsace. Even others say that he was the son of a knight. You can pick, if you like. Odo joined the monastery at St. Martin of Tours as a cleric (back then, this was like a deeply religious layperson, not a monk or priest), then went on to study in Paris under Remigius of Auxerre. He became a monk in about 909 (rather late, as he would have been about thirty years old), then became a priest, and finally a superior of the abbey school in Baume, whose founder was the first abbot of the Cluny abbey in 910. Odo went with Abey Berno to Cluny, and brought his book collection of about 100 books. The library grew to be one of the richest and most important in Europe, but during the religious conflicts of 1562, the Hugenots sacked the abbey destroying or distributing the books far and wide. Some of those that remained were burned in 1760 during the French Revolution. At any rate, Odo became abbot when Berno died in 927. He was the second in a long string of famous abbots. Odo visited Italy several times between 936 and 942, and founded the Our Lady on the Aventine monastery in Rome during those trips. That monastery and the other Cluniac monasteries from Odo’s reform efforts lived under the Rule of Benedict, but because the male Cluniac houses enjoyed a certain opulence, it was not thought that the more meager nunneries were cost-effective and they continued the tradition of earning their own keep. But among the men, Odo’s reforms led to less agrarian and more political structures for the Cluniac abbeys. This new organization left the monks free to devote themselves to prayer and study because the work of running the abbey was left to laypeople and servants. The monks ate and dressed very well, true to their noble births, and you can see that it would be appealing—if you were male and inclined to the monastery—to join the Cluniac string of houses. Cluniac Reform, headed by Odo, was about restoring the arts and caring for the poor. The main complaint needing reform was corruption, especially buying offices and having concubines. (The Catholic church, if you read its history, seems to struggle with this sort of thing off and on since its inception.) At the time, Benedictine monasteries were largely supported by a local lord, who acted as a patron, and sometimes made demands from the monasteries, like for cheese or wine production as payment for land use. Odo’s reform made control less secular so that the Rule of St. Benedict could be enforced. The first reformed monastery was in Aquitaine, and reported directly to the pope, a control that was largely theoretical, as Rome was a pretty good distance and there wasn’t any Internet or telephone. There were more than a thousand Cluny monasteries by the 12 th century. But I digress. As I said earlier, Odo was Abbot of Cluny in Burgundy (now France) from 927 until his death in 942. During his abbacy, there were more than 82 donations of land to the Cluny monastery, making the monastic properties huge as well as hugely important to the region. Odo seems to have enjoyed an interest in music, and he took it upon himself to contribute to the massive effort being undertaken to document it (since Pope Gregorius had first ordered it in the 6 th century), and he took part in documenting the forms that certain music was to take, such as the antiphons. Odo wasn’t an innovator, for the most part, though, and his writings followed on what Aurelianus (in about 850) wrote about how the modes should be relevant mostly at the ends of certain pieces (such as the offertory, gradual, etc., which are movements from the Propers) and at the beginnings of others (such as introits, antiphons, and communions, which are songs from the Propers), and to which Regino added (in about 890). Regino suggested that singers concentrate their attention on the beginnings of antiphons, introits, and communions, and the opposite for responsories, when the singer should focus on the ends rather than the beginnings. Odo said that the singer should focus on the psalm tones (where the drone lives, in context of the moving notes of the chant), and that the singer should take their cues about how to begin the chant from how it ends. There were three very different ways to approach the same music, it seems (i.e., only the ends matttered, only the beginnings mattered, and the beginnings and the ends should match). Odo created a seminal tonary, which is a collection of liturgical chants organized around their mode or psalm tones. Today’s most-used books organize around the time of year and a complete Mass’ music, or around what part they play—so all the introits are grouped together, all the communions, and so on. Some music historians attribute the invention of the monochord or organistrum (used in the 10 th -12 th centuries, like an early hurdy-gurdy and later vilified by Michael Praetorius) to Odo. I don’t know if he invented it or not, but he certainly used it to teach music. It was a kind of mechanical drone instrument that used a rotating wheel (cranked by hand) against a single string, the note of which could be adjusted by moving a bridge, and a drone tone, which was fixed, unaltered and left open. Yup, you could play an open fourth or fifth on it. But harmony, polyphony, and accompaniment hadn’t been invented yet, so it’s likely that they used this device to provide “home” notes to help the singers stay on pitch. Odo’s work as a reformer was recognized by the pope, and he was sent as a political emissary when peace was arranged between Hugh of Arles (who was big on promoting his family members and leaving his people to starve) and Alberic I of Spoleto in about 909 or 910. People didn’t take credit for writing new music back then, but they did take credit for writing about music. Odo probably wrote the Diologus de musica (or it might have been written by his student), which contains the earliest use of the modern scale’s letters (called the Oddonic letters), examples of anomalous chants, and a detailed explanation of the ambitus (the spectrum of notes) of the various modes. Odo is credited with inventing the term cantus planus, which was a device used in the plagal modes (these are lower in pitch and dip lower in their melodies than authentic modes—for more on this, see my blog Church Modes) to refer to the fact that the melodies themselves floated below the surface of a mode. This means that you can hear the scale of the mode in the song, even though the song doesn’t necessarily tiptoe up and down the scale of the mode. It gets in your ear, like one of those jingles that goes round and round in there. The cantus planus is also thought to apply to polyphony, where the chant lies underneath the added melodies on a simple plane. (This is not to be confused with the cantus firmus, where the chant is one of the lines in polyphony, spelled out slowly over the course of the piece.) Odo also commented on the Moralia of St. Gregory, wrote a biography of St. Aurillac, and he wrote three books of moral essays called Collationes, a few sermons, and an epic poem on the redemption, called Occupatio. He was a pretty busy fellow. He’s thought to have written 12 choral antiphons, all in honor of St. Martin of Tours. But there’s no way to verify this, because folks didn’t sign (or copyright) the music they wrote back then. There’s only one contemporary biography of him, called the Vita Odonis, by John of Salerno. Guido D’Arezzo based some of his thoughts on Odo’s work. (You can read more about my pal Guido in my blog Composer Biography: Guido D’Arezzo.)


“Gregorian Chant,” by Willi Apel, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1990 “The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham, Oxford University Press, New York 1979 “The Notation of Polyphonic Music, 900-1600,” by Willi Apel, The Mediaeval Academy of America, 1953 “Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1940 “Temperament, The Idea the Solved Music’s Greatest Riddle,” Stuar Isacoff, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2001 “Music, Body, and Desire in Medieval Culture, from Hildegard of Bingen to Chaucer,” by Bruce W. Holsinger, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2001