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I am a medievalist and an adjunct college instructor in the humanities at Union College. My research includes medieval theologies of history, text/image relationships in visionary and mystical texts, and the writings of the twelfth-century Doctor of the Church, St. Hildegard of Bingen. I am also a translator of medieval Latin and German texts, especially as relate to my research. My translation of Hildegard's Book of Divine Works is available from Catholic University of America Press here. I completed a Master's in Medieval Studies at the University of Notre Dame in 2010, a Fulbright Fellowship in Germany in 2008, and a B.A. in Classics and German at Boston College in 2007.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

O vis eternitatis (Symphonia 1)

For Easter, a Responsory for the Creator by St. Hildegard of Bingen[1]

Scivias II.1: Creation,
Fall, & Redemption.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 41v.
V. O vis eternitatis
que omnia ordinasti in
     corde tuo,
per Verbum tuum omnia
     creata sunt
sicut voluisti,
et ipsum Verbum tuum
induit carnem
in formatione illa
que educta est de Adam.

R. Et sic indumenta ipsius      
a maximo dolore
abstersa sunt.
V. O strength within Eternity:
All things you held in order
     in your heart,
and through your Word were
     all created
according to your will.
And then your very Word
was clothed within
that form of flesh
from Adam born.

R. And so his garments
were washed and cleansed
from greatest suffering.

V. O quam magna est benignitas Salvatoris         
qui omnia liberavit
per incarnationem suam,
quam divinitas exspiravit
sine vinculo peccati.

R. Et sic indumenta ipsius
a maximo dolore
abstersa sunt.

Gloria Patri et Filio
et Spiritui sancto.

R. Et sic indumenta ipsius
a maximo dolore
abstersa sunt.
V. How great the Savior’s goodness is!
For he has freed all things
by his own Incarnation,
which divinity breathed forth
unchained by any sin.

R. And so his garments
were washed and cleansed
from greatest suffering.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit.

R. And so his garments
were washed and cleansed
from greatest suffering.

Christ is Risen! Alleluia!

As we begin this glorious Eastertide, this blog begins a journey through the extraordinary liturgical compositions of the newest, Symphonic Doctor of the Church, St. Hildegard of Bingen. Our forty days of fasting are fulfilled—let us now embark on fifty days of wondrous beauty!

Most of Hildegard’s musical compositions date to the 1140’s or 1150’s, and most were likely written for specific feasts. A few, such as the “Symphony of Virgins” (“O dulcissime amator”, Symphonia 57), are also found in the final vision of Hildegard’s first visionary work, Scivias (III.13), which describes with sight and sound the choirs of the heavenly symphony, and may have been used in various semi-liturgical celebrations within her community.

Later, they were gathered together into a collection, titled Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (“Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations”), organized hierarchically by topic: first those addressing the Trinity, as seen in the relationships between Father and Son, Mother and Son (and thus here we find the Marian works), and the Holy Spirit; then descending, through the celestial hierarchy to patron saints (like St. Rupert and St. Disibod), virgins, widows, innocents, and the special devotion in the Rhineland to the early German martyrs, St. Ursula and her companions; and finally, the Church, the Mother of all saints still striving here on earth.[2] As this blog makes its way through the collection this Eastertide, it will roughly follow this ordering as found in the critical edition of Barbara Newman.

Today, the Feast of Our Lord’s Resurrection, we begin with the responsory for the Creator with which the Symphonia opens. (The responsory, one of several compositional forms Hildegard used, is a series of solo verses alternating with choral responses sung at the first office of the day, vigils [matins], in the monastic liturgy.) It rings with one of Hildegard’s most characteristic themes: the fulfillment of the “eternal counsel” (Ps. 32[33]:11), that is, the predestined movement from creation through the Word to recreation by the Word-made-flesh. An often minority position in western Christianity, this doctrine of the eternal predestination of Christ holds that the Incarnation was a part of the divine counsel for creation from before all ages, rather than simply a “back-up plan” to fix the Fall. In this sense, the entire course of salvation history is the performance in time of the timeless celestial symphony, composed in eternity by the resounding Word of God.

As a result, Hildegard rarely focuses on Christ’s death in her music—I offered a powerful exception, the antiphon “Cruor sanguinis”, on Friday—choosing instead to contemplate the Incarnation itself as the pivotal moment in which creation reached its perfect and predestined trajectory. The freedom, then, that we celebrate today is the cleansing of the garment of human flesh from suffering.

In this responsory, Hildegard exploits the repetition of the respond (refrain) to elegantly move from thinking first about the cleansing of Adam’s flesh from suffering to the cleansing of Christ’s flesh by his own suffering. As Barbara Newman notes, this transposition also involves the shift from Eve (the “form of flesh from Adam born [lit. brought forth]”) to Mary, the human form in which Christ put on flesh; and the shift from the second-person address to God, “the strength within eternity”, to a third-person narration of redemption.[3]

The mirrored movements of descent and ascent that characterize Hildegard’s neoplatonic conception of the relationship between divinity and creation can also be seen in the illustration she designed to accompany the vision that opens the second part of the Scivias in the Rupertsberg manuscript (fol. 41v from the facsimile, as shown above).[4] The top of the image swirls with concentric circles of blue and gold, while by contrast, a straight, vertical finger of silver pierces another circle below—the Trinity (Father in gold, Son in blue, Holy Spirit in silver), the “strength within eternity,” thrusts into time to create the world, as shown in the six roundels within the lower circle, each representing one of the days of creation in Genesis.

Yet, the narratival move from eternity above to time below in the middle register is countered by the visual thrust of the golden Redeemer bursting up from the bottom register, causing the eye to move back up the page, from time back into eternity. This is the golden promise whose fulfillment we celebrate today: for God became like us, in order to call us back to him, that we might become like God.

All the lamps were extinguished on Friday, plunging us into the muddy and confused darkness which holds captive the prophetic stars in the middle register of this image—the blackness into which Adam fell because he refused to pluck the lily of obedience offered to him from the circles of divinity (one of Hildegard’s more striking inversions of the traditional imagery of the Fall). But in the Easter night, when Christ rose from the grave and shattered death forevermore, the flaming blaze of new light and new life burst forth from the dawn, as Hildegard’s image shows, golden and gushing to rescue us from night. As Hildegard tells us, after Christ “poured out His beautiful blood and knew in his body the darkness of death, … by His redeeming touch [He] brought [the elect] back to the inheritance they had lost in Adam.”

And Hildegard, whose life was in a sense its own symphony in praise of her Creator and Redeemer, saw that as the elect “were returning to their inheritance, timbrels and harps and all kinds of music burst forth, because Man, who had lain in perdition but now stood upright in blessedness, had been freed by heavenly power and escaped from death.” (Scivias II.1.13)

Let us rejoice! Christ is Risen! Alleluia!

[1] Standard Latin orthography would render the title of this antiphon, “O vis aeternitatis”. Latin text from Barbara Newman's edition of Symphonia (Cornell University Press, 1988, 2nd ed. 1998), p. 98. Translation by Nathaniel Campbell; throughout this project, I will be working to strike a balance between poetics and literal accuracy, offering, as it were, a middle ground between the two translations that Barbara Newman offers for each piece—an ultra-literal and one whose poetry often takes flight beyond the bounds of the original. A transcription of the music (in chant notation) of “O vis eternitatis” can be found at Br. Francis Therese Krautter's Symphonia blog. 
[2] For the sake of simplicity, I have ignored the variations and differences between to the two principal manuscripts, the earlier but dilapidated Dendermonde and the later but more edited Riesenkodex. For the those complexities, as well as Barbara Newman’s reasons for the ordering she adopts, see Symphonia, pp. 51-60. 
[3] See Newman’s commentary, Symphonia, pp. 267-8. 
[4] See Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, trans Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (Paulist Press, 1990), Part II, Vision 1, pp. 147-157. 

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