Posts Tagged With: Musicology

The Set List

One month down, one month to go.  Today, I took stock of where I’m at, formulated a strategy for my remaining time, and narrowed down my repertoire choices.  I want to present a vocal program that is a good representative sampling of Hildegard’s work, so I’ll perform at least one of each type of chant.  My bare-bones set list is as follows:

Antiphon – O virtus Sapientie (memorized and ready to go), O rubor sanguinis (almost memorized)

Sequence – O ignis Spiritus Paracliti (analyzed, memorization started)

Responsory – O vos felices radices (still need to transcribe)

Hymn – to be decided.  All of Hildegard’s hymns are long, intricate, and vocally challenging, which means this decision needs to be made carefully and I’m not yet sure which hymn best suits my voice and interests.

I’ll probably add a few more antiphons.  They’re generally compact and more straightforward than the other chant types, which means I can show a more varied selection.  Hildegard’s sequences and responsories are often quite long (which is true for the ones I’m performing), and while they’re wonderful, I think more than one of each would imbalance the program and risk tiring my listeners out.

Hildegard also wrote a morality play, Ordo virtutum, but I won’t be performing any of the music from it.  I think it would be odd to present sections of Ordo without the entire context, and the songs in the Symphonia will be quite sufficient to do justice to Hildegard’s oeuvre.


Where do I go from here?  My primary source readings are as complete as they’re going to be in German, and I could amass secondary sources until the end of time.  I recently read an article about applying ethnomusicology techniques to early music, essentially seeking out the living musical descendants of the repertoire you’re trying to recreate and learning from them.  I already have this partially factored in to my project with the Benedikterinnen Abtei St. Hildegard, but I’m seeking out more opportunities to experience chant while I’m over here.

On the broader topic of performance practice, I’m extremely curious how different ensembles make their musical choices – and there are medieval festivals abound in Germany during the early summer.  I’ve found a couple not too far from Bingen in the next few weeks that have quite a range of performers (from the obviously scholar-historian sort to the (ahem) perhaps less historically informed) and my plan at this point is to go observe them, talk to them, learn why they do things the way they do, and get a feel for current trends in medieval performance.

It seems strange to me that there can be such a thing as a ‘current trend’ for a historically-based artform…  but the early musicology articles I’ve read so far present a huge spectrum of opinions and ideas seem to come and go in waves of popularity.  I’m very excited to hear  what the living practitioners of this music have to say about their methods.

And, of course, I still have to study and prepare the chants myself.  🙂


It is likely that my posts will get more frequent and far more interesting in the near future.  I’ve done my best to avoid tossing out somewhat boring updates such as “only 1000 pages to go!” or summarizing the most recent article I’ve read.  Fear not – more fieldwork is on its way!

May in Bingen – sunny and windy

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Primary Source Breakthrough! – Hildegard’s Letter to the Prelates of Mainz

Recently, I’ve been roaming through Hildegard’s letters in search of references to music, singing, rhythm, and the like.

Today, I hit the jackpot.

In 1178, Hildegard refused to exhume the body of a man who supposedly died an excommunicate.  The clergy of Mainz responded to this by placing an interdict on her Rupertsberg convent, preventing them from celebrating the Mass or singing at all.  This letter was sent to challenge that interdict, expanding upon the importance of communion in monastic life, preaching the extraordinary power of music, and generally stating that Mainz was withholding things it did not have the authority to withhold.

I won’t give you the whole letter, so you’ll have to trust that I’m not taking these passages out of context.  Most of them are consecutive, starting from about half-way through the letter.  The only major break occurs between the 3rd and 4th passages, in between which there is a paragraph about interference with the convent.

DISCLAIMER:  This is my English translation of a German translation of Hildegard’s original Latin.  I’ve done my best to make it readable, but there are some spots of awkward syntax.  Mistranslation is entirely possible.  Consider yourself warned.

The same spirit that had received them [the prophets] taught not only psalms and songs to sing, to inflame the devotion of the hearers, but also various musical instruments for sound-full [klangvollen] accompaniment. This happened with the intention that the hearer – both through the shape and nature of these instruments as well as through the meaning of the words presented with them – as already said, would be outwardly encouraged and stimulated about the subject they were taught.

This passage shows that Hildegard not only supports the use of instruments as accompaniment (!), but considers those instruments to be of the same divine inspiration as the music played upon them.  The ‘shape and nature’ of these instruments commonly served as a didactic metaphor in medieval times – Barbara Newman’s introduction to the Symphonia paraphrases Augustine’s explanation quite well: “the tambourine stands for asceticism, because the skin stretched over the wood must be taut and dry, like the body purified by fasting and continence.  The organ represents the community of saints united in charity… the trumpet recalls the voice of the prophets, and among stringed instruments, psaltery and lyre symbolize heaven and earth, because one is plucked from above and the other from below.”  Hildegard suggests here that the combination of visual and textual symbolism is a valuable one, and perhaps that the selection of accompaniment instruments should match the text.

In the imitation of those holy prophets, learned, wise, and skillful men invented several musical instruments themselves and could sing to their heart’s content.  They made the melody on the finger-joints of the hand, which bend like a bow, remembering that Adam received the Holy Spirit through God’s finger.  His [Adam’s] voice had a sweet sound before his error, full of harmony in all musical art.  If he had remained in his original condition, the weakness of his mortal body would not have been able to endure the power and sonority of his voice.

The Guidonian Hand

First of all, the picture you see here is the Guidonian Hand, a medieval mnemonic device for learning to read music.  Guido of Arezzo, responsible for recording this handy (heheh) tool, died approximately 30 years before Hildegard’s birth.  It seems that the Hand probably existed before his time, but good ol’ Guido is the first person is the first person to jot it down in a music theory treatise, and so it’s named after him.  It’s widely accepted that Hildegard would have been familiar with the Hand, and though I haven’t seen the material to prove it, I think it’s very likely – especially given her description in this letter.

I’d also like to bring attention to how incredibly powerful Hildegard says Adam’s pre-Fall voice was.  So powerful that his body wouldn’t be able to handle it.  I’m not sure if this means he would instantly combust or that over time he would disintegrate.  Either way, it shows both Hildegard’s belief in the sheer power of the voice and her belief that the voice is more than its physical production, i.e. the larynx.

But when his seducer, the Devil, heard that Man had begun to sing out of holy inspiration and through this was bypassing him and cultivating the lovely songs of the heavenly fatherland, he knew that his devious tricks wouldn’t work.  This terrified him – he was not just a little disquieted.  Since then, he has constantly concocted many inventions of his wickedness, not only into the hearts of men through evil flustering, impure thoughts, or distractions, but also into the mouth of the Church through quarreling, nuisances, unjust oppression, the banning of the beautiful, melodious praise of God and the spiritual chants, and incessant interference.  

Remember, Hildegard is writing this letter to protest the interdict banning her convent from celebrating the Mass and from singing.  In the second half of this passage, she’s basically telling Mainz that they’ve fallen prey to the Devil’s tricks – an incredibly courageous move.  Returning to the first half, she also asserts that the act of singing brings Man closer to the original paradise, and in doing so, terrifies the Devil.  He was not just a little disquieted, he was seriously scared.  Hildegard here places song as the antithesis of wickedness, a sort of champion against devilish works.

Consider how the body of Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the untouched Virgin Mary.  So also is chant rooted in the church by the Holy Spirit as an echo of the heavenly harmony.  The body is the garment of the soul, which owns a loud voice – God comes through the body, the voice and the soul together, in singing.  Hence the prophetic spirit also knows to praise God with clanging and jubilant cymbals and the remaining musical instruments which the wise and learned have invented.  

Hildegard just linked singing to the birth of Christ, the bringer of salvation, both divine and human.

(takes deep breath)

That’s huge.  Really huge.  Cosmologically huge.  In doing so, she also links the act of singing to the perpetual act of creation.  The singer is the body which the spirit enlivens, and the resulting song – the song that’s both voice and soul – is an expression of divinity, possibly even divinity itself.  This parallel runs not only on the personal scale, but also on the larger community scale, with the church functioning essentially as one united body through which the song can be born.

(I don’t entirely follow her leap from singing to clanging cymbals, but I took this last sentence to reinforce the previous passage about the use of instruments.)

A person listening to a song often takes a deep breath and sighs because it reminds him of the original heavenly harmony.  The prophet therefore carefully ponders the nature and knowledge of the spirit, that the soul is full of harmony [symphonialis est anima], and encourages us to praise the Lord in psalm with zither and ten-stringed harp.  He [unsure whether this is the prophet or the Lord] likes the deep-sounding zither, akin to the body, with the bright-sounding harp, akin to the spirit, and with the ten-stringed harp points out the fruition of the Laws.  

The beginning of this passage suggests that we like music because of something innate within us, something that corresponds to something beyond ourselves.  I really want to read this in the original Latin because I get the sense that the German translation I’m working with is missing some of the subtleties and plays-on-words…. and it’s certainly missing the connections to her (Latin) song texts.  Nonetheless, her statement here that ‘the soul is full of harmony’ applies not only in musical terms, but to her philosophy on a larger scale.  I think this concept deserves a full post of its own, so I won’t go further into it here.

In the latter half of this passage, Hildegard returns to the instrumental metaphors.  I suspect that the Latin text indicates ‘lyre’ in place of this German translation’s bright-sounding ‘harp’, mostly because it would complete the heaven-and-earth metaphor more gracefully, but also because the harp, whose strings are plucked from either side (not above or below) would then function as an intercessor of sorts.  I think that the ‘ten-stringed’-ness of the harp is meant to correspond with the Ten Commandments, which would make this interpretation more plausible.


Thank you, Nora Beck, for getting me addicted to primary source material.  

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Mid-week Matins Musing: Medieval Musicology


“Historical artifacts are not entirely severed from the present, nor do they clearly underwrite it; the pleasure of history lies in both the resonance and the clashes.”  (Peraino 217)

“In order to make it [historical music] our own, we may have to reconstruct its history in full depth, for example by exploiting the meta-poetry of all those extant documents and messages that illustrate or transmit music in its cultural contexts.”  (Strohm 719)

“All history that relies on written sources alone is incomplete and of necessity misleading.”  (Sachs 49)


Research, research, and more research.  These three quotes illustrate the approach I’ve been taking so far, trying to contextualize Hildegard’s music not only within her extant work, but within her religion, life, and 12th century German world.  I’ve also been trying to contextualize my own research strategies into the broader realm of musicology – and have found that the musicology world is pretty conflicted when it comes to medieval scholarship.  On one end of the spectrum is the die-hard “primary musical sources only!” camp, on the other end is the “sociology and anthropology have feelings too!” commune.  There are many villages and solitary wanderers in between these two extremes, including the militant agnostic “we can’t really know anything!” guerrillas and the “I play it because it sounds cool!” neo-troubadours, whose musical eclecticism often matches their odd pairing of 16th century bodices with sheer, iridescent fabrics, tricorns, and ‘woad’ face paint.

I can’t say I side with any of these factions.

I think that music speaks for itself.  I also think that having a holistic picture to place that music within is important, especially when it comes to ancient and medieval music.  We simply don’t have the abundance of musical sources and information about performance that’s available to scholars of later periods, and we can use all the insight we can find.  It’s not that medieval music doesn’t speak for itself, it’s that the lack of primary sources is easily filled in by our own 21st century imaginations, creating a dangerous possibility for the music to essentially become a puppet with which we manufacture our own Middle Ages.

I don’t want to build my own St. Hildegard.

She is too incredible a human being for me to misrepresent.  There’s been an unfortunate trend, specifically within the New Age movement, to use her works out of context.  Quite often her religious faith is taken out of the picture altogether because it supposedly makes her medical treatises on healing with plants and stones less appealing to today’s would-be naturopaths.  Her chants are recorded in a wide variety of wishy-washy ‘transcendent’ forms, often with some sort of synthesized abomination adding to the mood.  I find this injust and disrespectful.  She was a nun and an abbess, most of her writings are deeply religious, and her music was liturgy for singing.  She helped reform her Church in a time where it was straying from its own convictions.

Religion, faith, and spirituality were central and powerfully positive in her life.  Recognizing that doesn’t devalue her work, nor does it make it irrelevant, somehow unsavory, or impossible for non-Christians to be deeply moved by.

Amidst all this talk of scholarship and authenticity, it is easy to ignore the personal altogether.  I am not trying to claim that the musicologist should be distant and disconnected from their subject – to do so would take away the passion that makes long, often tedious hours of reading and searching for references that may or may not exist bearable, enjoyable, even exciting.  I am here because I am passionate about my subject.  I identify with her in many ways.  Though I may not share her religion, I connect with her music, poetry, and the centrality of her spirituality to her words, actions, and worldview.

However, this personal connection is in addition to my scholarly work, not in place of it.

In the end, performance practice is essentially a personal choice.  I find it hard to believe that medieval performance practices were so homogeneous that there is a definitive ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to make this music – but there are certainly some ways that are more historically informed than others, and some which really shouldn’t be called ‘medieval’ at all.  I think it’s the musicologist’s role to draw from all the sources available to synthesize a picture as close to authenticity as possible – and the performer’s responsibility to use that picture to help the music speak through them.  My chant interpretations will be unique to me, but they will grow out of the stones of Rupertsberg.

And yes, I also study/perform medieval music because it sounds cool.  🙂


Extra bonus points for anyone who can guess where the ‘self-portrait’ image is from.

If it interests you, here is my bibliography up to this point.

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Musicologist Goes on Safari, Ends Up in Ancient Rome

It’s a dangerous business, going out your front door…

Today was Römertag, or Roman Day in the Rhein Valley.  Essentially, a number of towns and parks got together and decided it would be a brilliant idea to have a day where they all put on events dedicated to the region’s Roman history.  They were right.  Bingen’s contributions were free admission to the Museum am Strom, lots of children’s activities, and a reconstructed villa in the Binger Wald (which I unfortunately wasn’t able to make it to).  Upon opening the predictably red-and-black leaflet describing all the exciting events I could attend, it didn’t take me long to figure out where I needed to go.

Konzert des Ensembles ‘Cornu et Hydraulis’; Musik mit Instrumenten aus römischer Zeit…”

And off I went to Heidesheim, about 17 kilometres eastward.

Despite the chapel location not being on any map anywhere in Heidesheim itself, I eventually made it to St. Georgskapelle thanks to some friendly locals.  At first I wondered why a small outbuilding in the middle of an apple orchard seemed to be the best place for a concert, but then I learned it was built in the year 40 AD by a family of Romanized Celts [romanisierte Keltenfamilie] as part of a small villa.  Yes, 40 AD as in the year Caligula supposedly appointed his horse as a senator.  The 40 AD that happened almost two millennia ago.  Whoa.  During the Migration Period, the Franks came in and transformed this particular hall into a chapel, and it’s been incredibly well-preserved since then – apart from an unfortunate encounter with the 30 Years War and general neglect until 1980.  I say ‘incredibly well-preserved’ because large chunks of the original Roman (Romanized Celtic?) frescoes remain visible on the inside walls, and though they may not be pristine, they are unmistakable.

In other words, of course it was the perfect place to perform Roman music.

First up came the Hydraulis, or water organ.  These things are a pretty outstanding invention.  They use raising water levels to push air through the organ pipes.  Here’s a nifty diagram:

Hydraulis - Water Organ - Wasserorgel

It takes three people to play; two handle the pumps on either side while the third plays the keyboard.  Additionally, there are a set of levers to one side (not shown in this diagram) that adjust the timbre of the pipes and also which set of pipes is being played.  The model these heroic musicologists were performing on had two sets that were a half-step apart, allowing them to modulate (!) between two sets of tetrachords.  (That’s really exciting.)

The Hydraulis in action!

Next up, the Cornu.  As the name suggests, it’s a horn.  This horn has a number of notable features; first and perhaps most noticeably, it has a large vertical beam and a crossbar for holding/marching with the instrument.  This suggests that, unlike the hydraulis, its function was military.  Mosaics, frescoes, and other depictions of the time frequently show armies with cornu players.  Second, its shape (long, thin, very slightly conical) allows the player to manipulate the overtone sequence so that scalar passages (not just bugle-call-like arpeggios) can be played by adjusting the embouchure for each note.  This is very similar to natural horn technique, still used today.  It appeared to have a cup-shaped mouthpiece, but I’m not completely sure.

This is a replica of a cornu found in Pompeii.

Perhaps the most instantly recognizable of the ancient instruments is the Cithara, or lyre.  Due to  its soft sound, it was most likely used to accompany singing.  In this picture, the cornu is playing a sustained drone note – notice how his hand is over the bell, muting the sound.

A hymn to Helios

Next came some more brass instruments, two Tubae.  These aren’t tubas in the modern oom-pah sense, they are literally ‘tubes’.  One is bronze, the other came from a very large bovine.

Tuba #1

Tuba #2

Cornu and tuba play some fanfares!

Next, the Aulos.  I love the aulos.  (A lot.)  It consists of two double-reeded pipes usually of the same length that the player plays simultaneously.  One pipe has finger-holes on the bottom half, the other on the top-half, allowing a whole scale to be played between the two but also allowing the possibility for a drone or harmonization.  For some reason I’d always imagined the tone to be quite strident – like two mediocre oboists with hard reeds – but it’s actually very warm and round, somewhat like an extra-reedy clarinet.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get to look at the reeds up close, but from a distance they appeared to be rather squat and wide.

Aulos are thought to have been used mainly for dance and ceremonial music.

After about an hour and a half of Roman musical bliss, the concert ended and I lingered to talk to the musicians.  We ended up having a fairly lengthy discussion about musical notation (in German, I’m pretty proud of myself), specifically how rhythm was recorded.  With songs/hymns/vocal music, it wasn’t.  Rhythm was based entirely on the rhythm of the text, which the performer was expected to have an innate sense of.  Instrumental music, on the other hand, did notate rhythm – just not in the same structured way we do today.  The last note in each small rhythmic chunk had a dot over it, while the end of a rhythmic phrase (made up of multiple chunks) had a line over it – indicating it was to be lengthened.  Here’s the example of notation they showed during their presentation:

Roman musical notation. Only a handful of samples survive

Which would come out to something like:

[DA da DA da DA da da daaa / DA da da da DA da da daaa / DA da DA da DA da da daa / DA da da da da DA da daa]

 We may not be able to know each note’s exact duration, but at least we know where the accents and stress patterns fall.

Another thing we talked about is the importance of multi-disciplinary scholarship when it comes to ancient and early music.  The vast majority of information we have about these times isn’t in musical notation, it’s in contemporary literature and art as well as archaeological findings.  To assemble all these sources into a musical picture requires knowledge of the languages and cultures at hand, and in the case of historic instruments, the craftsmanship to reproduce a working instrument from partial findings and artistic depictions.  Musicianship is also critical, but it needs all of the scholarly support to bring this music to life.

I went home a very happy camper.

Here’s a link to their website!  (It’s in German.)

Things to listen for:  the beginning has both tubae and corni – 0:32 hydraulis and various percussion – 2:27 cornu and hydraulis.

Things to listen for:  multiple notes sounding at once… and how beautiful the aulos is.

Things to listen for: the cithara and percussion, and how they interact with the voice.  This recording uses quite a variety of instruments, some of which may or may not be historically accurate.  Also, it’s Greek…. but still relevant.


This adventure wasn’t directly related to my current project.  This adventure was related to what I want to do in the field of musicology – to research and reconstruct ancient-to-early music, using performance as a means of education and bringing light to otherwise forgotten/lost traditions.  I’d never encountered an ensemble in person before which specialized in pre-Renaissance music, let alone one that dared to venture into the great unknown of Classical Antiquity.  These badasses brilliant individuals are living my musicology dream, and that’s pretty inspiring.

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Antiphons, sequences, hymns, oh my!

For the most part, Hildegard’s music fits into four categories: antiphons, sequences, responsories, and hymns.

Antiphon – a relatively short chant which can be sung before, after, and/or between verses of Psalms in both the Mass and the Divine Office (more on the Divine Office coming in a later post).  Hildegard wrote a whopping 43 of these on a variety of topics.  (Some historically questionable things happen during the last part of this recording, but it’s beautiful nonetheless.)

[Charity / abounds toward all, / most exalted from the depths / above the stars, / and most loving / toward all, / for she has given / the High King the kiss of peace. (trans. Barbara Newman)]

Sequence – these relatively long chants appear between the Alleluia and the Gospel in the Mass.  Their texts are generally new (not directly from scripture), and for the most part made up of couplets expanding on one story or idea.  Hildegard wrote seven.  This is perhaps my favorite, and I just finished transcribing it earlier today.

[O fire of the Spirit, the Comforter, / life of the life of all creation, / holy are you, giving life to the Forms. / Holy are you, anointing / the dangerously broken; / holy are you, cleansing / the fetid wounds. / O breath of sanctity, / O fire of charity, / O sweet savor in the breast / and balm flooding hearts / with the fragrance of virtues. / O limpid fountain, / in which it is seen / how God gathers the strays / and seeks out the lost: / O breastplate of life / and hope of the bodily frame, / O sword-belt of honor: / save the blessed! / Guard those imprisoned / by the foe, / free those in fetters / whom divine force wishes to save. / O mighty course / that penetrated all, / in the heights, upon the earth, / and in all abysses: / you bind and gather all people together. / From you clouds overflow, / winds take wing, / stones store up moisture, / waters well forth in streams – / and the earth swells with living green. / You are ever teaching the learned, / made joyful by the breath / of Wisdom. / Praise then be yours! / You are the song of praise, / the delight of life, / a hope and a potent honor, / granting rewards of light.  (trans. Barbara Newman)]

Responsory – these are usually a sort of call-and-response chant consisting of a verse and then a repeated line.  Due to their floridness, Hildegard’s responsories are generally considered “Great Responsories”, meaning they would follow Lessons in a Matins service.  There’s also a spot between readings in the first half of the Mass for a responsory.  Their complexity suggests that Hildegard’s convent was quite musically adept.

[O most noble greenness, / you are rooted in the sun, / and you shine in bright serenity / in a sphere / no earthly eminence / attains. / You are enfolded / in the embraces of divine / ministries. / You blush like the dawn / and burn like a flame of the sun. (trans. Barbara Newman)]

Hymn – perhaps the oldest form of chant.  Not a regular part of the Mass, but they would appear during the Divine Office and on special occasions.  As with much of her other work, Hildegard’s five hymns don’t fit the traditional poetic meter associated with the hymn.  They also tend to be quite long.  (This recording makes use of some very *ahem* interesting vocal ornamentation.)

[This text is very very long, but it uses elaborate metaphors to connect St. Ursula’s martyrdom with the story of Moses and sacrificial animals.]

She also wrote a Kyrie and an Alleluia, which fit in their usual spots in the Mass.

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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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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.


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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Foreword…. and forward!

First of all, welcome!  You’ve wandered into my musings on medieval monastic musicological mayhem.  (Don’t worry, the back button on your browser should still work.)  Chances are good that if you’re reading this, you already know who I am and what I’m up to – but I believe a bit of background on my endeavor is in order.

My official project (and eventual thesis!)  title is “Rhythmic Interpretation of the Chants of Hildegard von Bingen”.  (A mouthful, I know.)  In short, medieval musical notation only records pitches, leaving quite a conundrum for scholars and performers of music from this period.  How long is each note held?  How does one pitch flow to the next?  The chant tradition has always been an oral one, with a written score to serve as a reminder more than an instruction booklet.  This makes it extremely difficult to discern how this music was performed 1000 years ago.  My project is to take up this challenge and create interpretations (both in theory and in performance) of Hildegard’s music that match the holisticness of her own life by synthesizing historical, musical, theological, and textual sources.

My plan is threefold:

  1. Examine two extant manuscripts, one created under her supervision and one created after her death, for similarities and differences that may point to musical practices,
  2. Delve deep into Hildegard’s theological and visionary works for references to music and rhythm, using textual analysis to better understand how she viewed musical interpretation in the broader theological context, and
  3. Visit the Benedikterinnenabtei St. Hildegard (which has been running consecutively since she was its Abbess) and learn how they approach her music, what has been passed down to them, and their perspective on performance of her music.
And, of course, learn a substantial number of her musical works.

Why Hildegard?

It is her music that first captivated me.  It is unlike anything else, it is somehow familiar and yet it is very foreign, it is evocative without being overly florid or annoyingly programmatic, it is personal, spiritual, and unique but at the same time tied to a dense history of religious music.  Really, you must hear it to get a sense of its ethereal beauty.  Here is one of my favorite antiphons, which I hope to perform at my lecture/recital in the fall:

[O leafy branch, / standing in your nobility / as the dawn breaks: / Now rejoice and be glad, / and deign to set us frail ones free / from our bad habits, / and stretch forth your hand / to raise us up.  (trans. Barbara Newman)]

You may have also noticed how the poetry (Hildegard’s own) is strikingly devoid of explicit theological references.  This is another hallmark of hers – using natural metaphor and playing with Latin words (virga means branch but also hints at virgin…) to evoke imagery outside of the traditional canon.

Abbess, composer, mystic, prophet, herbalist, leader, adviser to prominent figures, travelling preacher, author of texts on theology and natural medicine…. the bullet-point list of things that make Hildegard incredible go on and on.  What strikes me most about her life, however,  is not the extensive collection of roles she filled but how she filled them – it is her remarkable holism and ability to balance a multitude of things within a unified philosophy.  All her works, be they musical, poetic, theological, or visionary, are all distinct stems that spring from a shared root – a remarkable woman.

In her own words:  Symphonialis est anima  – the soul is symphonic.

If this painfully brief summary of Hildegard wasn’t enough for you, I’ll refer you (in true undergraduate fashion) to for a fairly solid brief biography.

Next post – moving in to Bingen!

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