Ave Verum Corpus: Who Is ‘Anon’ in Western Classical Music?

Ancient manuscripts for Western classical music often have the name 'Anon' next to the title. (Image via  pixabay  /  CC0 1.0)
Ancient manuscripts for Western classical music often have the name 'Anon' next to the title. (Image via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Ancient manuscripts for Western classical music often have the name “Anon” next to the title. In fact, there are tens of thousands of pieces of music whose creators remain unknown by the world. What does “Anon” mean and why do so many manuscripts bear this mark?

“Anon” is short for anonymous, which means “not identified by name.” The history of “Anon” goes back to at least the 10th century, in Western Europe, during the Middle Ages (the 5th to 15th century). Prior to Martin Luther’s religious reformation, the Roman Catholics led the religious practices of the followers of Jehovah and Jesus Christ. Church services during that time had to follow a complicated and lengthy procedure, and part of the worship formality included a music service. As a result, monks who studied music in the monastery would compose for the events.

Cathedrals were the main location for studying music in each city across Europe. The Roman Catholics were so powerful that their social status rivalled the aristocrats, and they built each cathedral close to the city center. Because of this, cathedrals were known for not only being a place for worshipping God, but also as a center of knowledge and resources. Famous composers such as Leonin, Perotin, and Haydn trained to become great musicians by studying in cathedrals.

The monks who were well-trained musicians would write music for the Catholic services, but because they worked for the church, they refused to take credit for the works they created. Monks believed that everything they wrote was provided by divine inspiration, rather than themselves, and they should give the credit to God. Writing music for a mass required a great deal of time and effort, but the musicians wrote this sacred music to glorify God, not just to assist with church services or to build up their names. That’s why they refused to put their names on their manuscripts.

Monks believed that everything they wrote was provided by divine inspiration, rather than themselves, and they should give the credit to God. (Image via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Monks believed that everything they wrote was provided by divine inspiration, rather than themselves, and they should give the credit to God. (Image via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Because there were no names on the manuscripts, when they were passed down to the next generation, younger monks who were assigned to gather the manuscripts would not know how to categorize them. At the same time, the concept of authorship was not emphasized in the Medieval Era. As a result, the monks would write “Anonymous” (or “Anon” for short) next to the title of the piece, to replace the unknown name of the composer. Many influential composers of the Middle Ages were forgotten, despite their great abilities. The concepts of melody, songs, and harmony originated from around this time, but no names are attributed to their conception.

Regardless of religion, people in the past wrote music for the sake of glorifying the blessings from higher beings. They wrote music to give thanks and show appreciation for a beautiful world. However, over the passage of time, we’ve seen a trend of people writing songs for the purpose of acquiring money and fame, and the meanings behind the music are often about romantic relationships and promoting material life.

Perhaps when it comes to art, we could all do better at appreciating what was passed down to us, the heritage of a good, simple, modest tradition, and to live a more peaceful life by focusing less on human sentiments and material gains. The spirit of “Anon” is a great example of humility and dedication toward what was given to us, and an example of selflessness to live by so that we can contribute to a better world.

Listen to the Gregorian Chant: Ave Verum Corpus, by “Anonymous”

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