In this historical novel set largely in the 11th century, Day dramatizes the life of the medieval monk who invented staff notation.
As the third son of a potter in the Tuscan village of Talla, young Guido doesn’t have the option of following his father into the family trade. However, the boy is enamored with the sound of the potter’s wheel, which changes in pitch depending on the speed of its rotations. Years later, the beauty of the music he hears at a cathedral in Arezzo draws him to life in the church: “As his ears drank in the rich, golden voices, Guido little suspected that even greater enchantment was still to come. For as the Mass continued, a hymn was sung by the boy choristers, their pure, sweet voices reverberating into every corner of the nave.” He goes to join his uncle at the monastery in Pomposa, where, right from the start, he realizes that his free-spirited nature is somewhat at odds with the obedience-oriented culture of the monks. With the help of his noble-born friend and fellow novice, Michael, Guido chooses to break from tradition and find a better way of notating the monks’ chant—and in doing so, changes the course of music forever. Over the course of this novel, Day succeeds in bringing some drama to Guido’s revolutionary developments so that the reader can almost hear the notes rising off the page: “Beneath the staff were the letter names corresponding to each of the notes: D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D. ‘Every hymn, every canticle, every psalm, every responsory we sing is built from these few notes….’ ” In Day’s fictionalized telling, Guido didn’t get up to much real trouble; as a result, the novel feels a bit one-note. That said, fans of vocal music and monastic culture will enjoy imagining a world where the greatest beauty imaginable was human voices resonating in buildings made of stone.
A sometimes affecting but often staid biographical novel whose song doesn’t stray far from the sheet music.