Posts Tagged With: Performance practice

Rhythm, Resolution, and Reverberation

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.

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.

Fields upon fields of seedy dandelions.   It was surreal when the wind picked up.

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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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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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