Adventures in Transcription: O rubor sanguinis

After two failed attempts to visit the Bingen Stadtsbibliothek and managing to contract some mild sort of German plague, it was another day where adventures in the greater Rheinland were simply not going to take place.  Over the past couple of days I’ve transcribed three antiphons, so today I began more concentrated work on O rubor sanguinis, one of the antiphons for St. Ursula and her 11,000 virgins.

O rubor sanguinis,

qui de excelso illo fluxisti

quod divinitas tetigit:

tu flos es

quem hyems de flatu serpentis

numquam lesit.

[O redness of blood, / you flowed from that lofty height / that Divinity touched: / you are a flower / that the winter of the serpent’s breath / has never harmed. (trans. Barbara Newman)]

St. Ursula was a British princess who ended up in an arranged marriage to a pagan prince.  A devout Catholic, she was very unhappy about this and managed to delay the marriage for three years by making a pilgrimage to Rome.  She took with her ten female (virgin) companions, who in turn each brought a thousand extra virginal handmaids with them.  Ursula also brought an extra thousand, just for good measure.  All was grand, until one day St. Ursula and her 11,000 virgins (as they came to be known, they would actually number 11,011 but that doesn’t have a catchy ring to it) crossed paths with Attila the Hun.  As you may have suspected, things did not go very well.  Attila demanded that Ursula become his concubine, she refused, and the entire company was martyred.

It can be inferred that Hildegard was first introduced to the legend of St. Ursula fairly early on while she was living in the Disibodenberg monastery.  About a hundred years prior, workmen uncovered bones in a Roman cemetery which were taken to be those of St. Ursula and her companions, and the Disibodenberg monastery acquired some as relics.  (It was later discovered that the bones of men were among them, so the likelihood of the remains actually belonging to St. Ursy and her 11,000 is fairly small.  One of Hildegard’s contemporaries, Elizabeth of Schönau, would disagree, but that’s another story.)  Hildegard saw St. Ursula’s devoted preservation of her virginity as parallel to her own monastic vows, and most of the music she wrote for the Feast of the 11,000 draws heavily on this connection.

(aren’t neumes beautiful?)

Preparation on this work started with transcribing from the original manuscript into modern notation with neumes above.  From there, I dissected its musical bits, isolated patterns, and generally worked out how motives interact to form a coherent musical narrative.  I also looked at patterns in the neume shapes and how these various sets of patterns interacted with the text.  After this intellectual scholar-brain work, I then played it through repeatedly – first reading the modern notation, then mostly the neumes, and then I went back to the original manuscript and sung it several times.

The musical choices I made here are based on the following:

  • The text – the meaning, flow, and rhythm of the words
  • Identification and analysis of recurrent musical motives
  • Tendencies of individual pitches
and, perhaps most controversially,
  • the shapes of the neumes themselves.
One of the main theories I’m working with at the moment is that each neume was chosen for a reason.  There are multiple ways to express the same pitches and groups of pitches in this type of notation, but these specific shapes are the ones that were recorded.  I have a very hard time believing that decision was arbitrary.  If we take the choice of neumes into account, then these shapes become evocative of vocal gesture and performance practice in addition to being pitch-specific – and thus crucial for chant interpretation.  It’s a theory in progress and I have very little supporting evidence at this point, but it *feels* right from a performer’s perspective.
Phew!  Musicology/theory/official project update, check.
But what does it sound like?
Between mild German plague and my lack of regular singing while abroad in London, my voice is less than stellar at the moment – and certainly not up for singing these chants.  Thankfully, I have my trusty soprano recorder on hand!  After much struggle with technology and holding my hands over candles to warm my fingers (my heating has ceased to function again, adding to the medieval authenticity of my experience), I was finally able to make a recording of what I’ve been working on.  This is by no means a finished product or anywhere near professional.  I tried to capture some of the feeling of the words in my articulation, but clearly that textual element is missing because it’s being played on an instrument.
DISCLAIMER:  Thanks to the excellent quality (cough cough) of my computer’s built-in microphone and free audio recording software, I literally had to play in the next room with the door closed to get a recording that didn’t sound like some harpy creature was emerging from the high notes.  If it sounds a little distant and shallow, that’s why – I thought you’d prefer cotton in the ears over insanity.

O rubor sanguinis  


On a completely different note, I’ve found several references in secondary sources to one of Hildegard’s remedies known as “flu powder”.  Apparently, there are six different ways to consume said concoction to treat specific cold symptoms.  Unfortunately, these sources don’t have the complete recipe and of the two ingredients I’ve been able to translate, I could only find one – ground nutmeg.  Hopefully my (successful!) visit to the Stadtbibliothek on Monday can provide me with the primary sources – the Causae et curae and the Physica – and the full ingredient list.

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