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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. 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.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

O pastor animarum (Symphonia 4)

An Antiphon for the Redeemer by St. Hildegard of Bingen[1]

Scivias II.1:
The Redeemer (detail).
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 41v.
O pastor animarum
et o prima vox
per quam omnes creati sumus,    
nunc tibi, tibi placeat
ut digneris
nos liberare de miseriis
et languoribus nostris.
O shepherd of our souls,
O primal voice,
whose call created all of us:
Now hear our cry to thee, to thee,
and deign
to free us from our miseries
and feebleness.

We closed yesterday’s post ruminating upon the renewal and perfection we celebrate this week of the primal goodness of creation, pronounced in the Creator’s words, “It is good.” Today’s simple yet evocative antiphon focuses on the Redeemer, the Word by whom all things were created and who now frees us from our pitiful, feeble weaknesses.

The structure of the piece follows the classical lines of the ancient “collect” form of prayer: an opening apostrophe to the addressee of the prayer; a relative clause describing a relevant attribute of the addressee; a hortatory subjunctive to the addressee; and a result clause (often with ut) dependent on the action of the hortatory subjunctive. Yet, by setting this collect to music as an antiphon, Hildegard transforms its simple plea into a powerful meditation upon the voice of God.

While the opening apostrophe is to the Good Shepherd who tends to us, his flock, and goes in search of us when we are lost, the more arresting image is the second: Christ, the Word, the “first voice” whose sounding (or singing?) brought all the world into being. Although the middle portion of the antiphon literally means, “Now may it please thee, thee,” I have chosen to respond to the “primal voice” with our own, plaintive, human cry, for Hildegard makes the unusual decision in describing that which was created through the Word, not in the third person (e.g. *per quam omnia creata sunt, “by whom all things were made”) but in the first person: “by whom we all were made.”

This piece is, then, intensely focused on the spoken relationship between us and God. God’s voice called us into being; now we cry to him to free us from our self-imposed weaknesses. We no longer languish in the pitiable muck of mumbled words and the drought of a hoarse, scratchy voice. This week, we call out to him with the strong, clarion notes of celestial song: “Sing with joy, O earth, illumined with this celestial radiancy: and enlightened by the King eternal, thy Glory, believe and know that thou has put away the darkness of all mankind!”[2]

Notes
[1] Latin text from Barbara Newman’s edition of Symphonia (Cornell University Press, 1988, 2nd ed. 1998), p. 102. 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 one and one whose poetry often takes flight beyond the bounds of the original. 
[2] This is the second phrase in the ancient and unique hymn that accompanies the newly lit Paschal Candle at the Easter Vigil, the Exsultet; I have used the older translation from the Anglican Missal, whose notes still haunt my heart when risen light breaks through the darkness. 

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