Adventures in Transcription: O virtus Sapientie

 Between the torrential downpour outside and getting a new hot water heater installed (hooray for hot water!), I was clearly not going anywhere today.  The solution:  brew a copious amount of tea, curl up in my sunshine cube and set to work on preliminary manuscript studies and transcription.

I started my adventure in transcription with my favorite antiphon, O virtus Sapientie, because a) I’m very familiar with it and b) it’s one of the works that appears in both of the extant manuscripts I’ll be looking at later on at the Hessisches Landesbibliothek in Wiesbaden.  Thankfully, this wonderful institution has uploaded digital images of the ENTIRE Riesencodex, so I can transcribe and otherwise familiarize myself with the manuscripts before visiting them in person.  This way, I’ll be able to focus on specific things I’ve already identified when I get there.

Why transcribe it?  Mainly for clarity of pitches.  The original chant notation is incredibly beautiful, but moving it into modern notation makes it easier to focus on the musical aspects because it’s easier to read.  However, in my transcriptions, I’ve also drawn the original neume forms above their corresponding pitches to maintain a sense of the original score.  I have a feeling they will come in handy later on.

Neumes?  What are these nonsensical squiggles?  Once upon a time, musical notation didn’t have a staff.  Keep in mind that chant was originally an oral tradition – notation really only served to jog the memory.  The first notation illustrated the flow of the line without necessarily specifying individual pitches.  There is a theory that the neume (or note) forms echoed the conducting gestures of the time (or cheironomy) – as much as that appeals to me, there isn’t a huge body of evidence supporting that.  But I digress.  Eventually, a staff (the set of lines underneath the notes) was added so that specific pitches could be indicated.  However, the neume forms remained.  Hildegard’s work is around that special period of time when the lines had just been added but the neume forms hadn’t turned into the blocks and lines that we see in later chant notation.  This means that the original evocative shape of the notes remains AND they specify pitches.  Hooray for neumes!

Since I was focusing on this particular antiphon today, once I had it transcribed my next step was to play it several times through on my recorder to get a sense of the music’s internal flow, which pitches pull towards other pitches, which pitches seem to want to linger, etc.  This antiphon relies heavily on the resolving pull of half-steps, specifically F to E and C to B, giving it an otherworldly sense of tension and release which is particularly prominent when it’s sung over a drone.  I also read the text out loud repeatedly to hear how the sounds of the words play off of each other and how the poetic rhythm falls.

O virtus Sapientie,

que circuiens circuisti, 

comprehendendo omnia

in una via que habet vitam,

tres alas habens,

quarum una in altum volat

et altera de terra sudat

et tercia undique volat.

Laus tibi sit, sicut te decet,

o Sapientia. 

[O energy of Wisdom, / you circled, circling / encompassing all things / in one path possessed of life. / Three wings you have: / one of them soars on high, / the second exudes from the earth, / and the third flutters everywhere. / Praise to you, as befits you, / O Wisdom. (trans. Barbara Newman)]

Speaking of text, it’s in Latin (surprise!).  There are many regional variants when it comes to pronouncing ecclesiastical Latin, and my plan was to use the German Latin pronunciation to come as close as possible to the sounds Hildegard herself would have heard.  However, in corresponding with my fantastic choir director and fellow musicology geek Dr. Kathy FitzGibbon, I learned a great and wonderful and somewhat terrifying thing.

THERE IS SUCH A THING AS MEDIEVAL GERMAN LATIN.

Even though this complicates things, I am bubbling with joy.  My medievalist self is ecstatic.  Tomorrow will be adventures in the Bingen Stadtsbibliothek searching for resources and probably requesting books on this new magic.

After exploring music and text separately, I combined them by singing the antiphon countless times over, getting a feel for what works and what doesn’t and how the melody interacts with the rhythm of the words.  I don’t have much additional research to back up my musical decisions at this point and I still have quite a bit more to do in the formal and poetic analysis department, but it was enlivening to start actually singing the music from my own transcription.

Congratulations, you made it to the end!  Here’s a recording of O virtus Sapientiae with a vocal drone in the background.

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One thought on “Adventures in Transcription: O virtus Sapientie

  1. morocco el mar

    Comme un faucon en chasse; le mystere et la joie; le recompense des pensees.

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