I’ve consumed about 450 pages of Hildegard’s letters in German translation at this point, and when noon came around today all the words on the page turned into unrecognizable symbols. Once again I put on my trusty thinking feet and went out for a wander…. and after several vineyards full of dandelions gone to seed, I ended up in the nearby village of Weiler bei Bingen.
Churches are pretty easy landmarks to navigate to, and from what I’ve gathered so far, they’re often the oldest buildings in the town. I’m not sure how old this one was, but unlike most of the churches I’ve tried to investigate, it was unlocked! Tangent: it’s always pretty awkward trying to open the door of a locked church. Inevitably someone walks by just as you fail and there’s that moment of accidental eye contact as you turn around…
But this time, I was successful.
It felt great to sing in a non-apartment space for the first time in quite a while. The acoustics struck me immediately – the high, vaulted Gothic ceiling combined with the stone/tile walls and floor made the space extremely resonant and full of reverberation. A single, short note filled the entire building for several seconds. The sound of my 20 euros for a votive candle dropping into the little iron collection box was deafening. As I sang through O virtus Sapientie, there were times when three or four notes hung in the air at once, blossoming against one another before falling into the next sequence of pitches… and this got me thinking.
In a space like this, increasing speed means losing clarity. The faster the notes happen, the more they will be overlapped by other notes. On the other hand, linger on a pitch and it absorbs the space. This leads me to think that the text absolutely must play a central role in interpreting chants in spaces like this – spaces like those Hildegard would have used – otherwise the important parts of the text get lost in the echoes. Keeping the reverberation in mind allows for the potential to play with clarity and ambiguity as it relates to the subject matter, specific words, and melodic motives.
For example, in the middle of O virtus Sapientie, there is a line that reads tres alas habens [three wings you have], followed by quarum una in altum volat [one of them soars on high], et altera de terra sudat [the second exudes from the earth], and then et tercia undique volat [and the third flutters everywhere]. The ‘wing that soars on high’ gets, well, a soaring melodic figure (including the highest note in the antiphon), and the ‘second earthly wing’ gets a much lower, slightly altered version of that same figure. In the case of these two lines, the notes themselves communicate their textual meaning – especially since the line that directly precedes them introduces these ‘three wings’. This is a place in which the reverberation could serve to heighten the sense of motion – quicken the rhythm and the resultant overlapping swirl of pitches very much evokes Hildegard’s image of three-winged Wisdom.
On the other end of the spectrum, elongating a pitch has a similarly powerful effect. This antiphon, like many of Hildegard’s musical works, ends with a downward half-step resolution. Previously, I’d been extending that penultimate pitch simply because I enjoy the sound of that tension and resulting release, but in the cavernous church it took on a more powerful character. Holding out the second-to-last note allows it to be the only pitch resonating in the space before the resolution to the tonic pitch. This creates an incredible sonic sensation – first, pitches from the last phrase linger, a little muddied, then the penultimate pitch dominates and fills the space, creating clarity and tension at the same time (the ear knows it’s battling against the tonic pitch), and then when it finally resolves downward, that penultimate pitch is still ringing and clashing until its echo fades into the one all-consuming tonic pitch. It’s absolutely magical.
Next mission, figure out the architecture and acoustics of the buildings Hildegard’s music would have been sung in.