A Sequence for the Virgin by St. Hildegard of Bingen
|Virgin Mary, Queen of Heavens'|
Symphony. Scivias III.13,
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 229r
|1a. O virga ac diadema
purpure regis que es
in clausura tua
1b. Tu frondens floruisti
in alia vicissitudine
quam Adam omne genus
|1a. O branch and diadem,|
in royal purple clad, who in
your cloister strong
stand like a shield:
1b. You burst forth blooming
but with buds
quite different than Adam’s progeny—
th’ entire human race.
|2a. Ave, ave, de tuo ventre
alia vita processit
qua Adam filios suos denudaverat.
2b. O flos, tu non germinasti
de rore nec de guttis pluvie
nec aer desuper te volavit sed divina
claritas in nobilissima virga te produxit.
3a. O virga, floriditatem tuam
Deus in prima die
creature sue previderat.
3b. Et te Verbo suo
o laudabilis Virgo, fecit.
4a. O quam magnum est
in viribus suis latus viri,
de quo Deus formam mulieris produxit
quam fecit speculum
omnis ornamenti sui
omnis creature sue.
4b. Inde concinunt
celestia organa et miratur
omnis terra, o laudabilis Maria,
quia Deus te valde amavit.
5a. O quam valde plangendum
est quod tristicia in crimine
per consilium serpentis
in mulierem fluxit.
5b. Nam ipsa mulier quam Deus
posuit, viscera sua
cum vulneribus ignorantie
decerpsit, et plenum dolorem
generi suo protulit.
6a. Sed, o aurora,
de ventre tuo novus sol processit,
qui omnia crimina Eve abstersit
et maiorem benedictionem per te protulit
quam Eva hominibus nocuisset.
6b. Unde, o Salvatrix,
que novum lumen humano generi
protulisti: collige membra Filii tui
ad celestem armoniam.
|2a. Hail, o hail! For from your womb|
came forth another life
that had been stripped by Adam from his sons.
2b. O bloom, you did not spring
from dew nor from the drops of rain,
nor has the windy air flown over you; but radiance
divine has brought you forth upon
that noblest bough.
3a. O branch, your blossoming
God had foreseen within the first
day of his own creation.
3b. And by his Word he made
of you a golden matrix,
O Virgin, worthy of our praise.
4a. How great in strength
is that man’s side,
from which God brought the form of woman forth,
a mirror made
of his own every ornament,
and an embrace
of his own every creature.
4b. The heavens’ symphony resounds,
and all the earth in wonder stares,
O Mary, worthy of our praise,
for God has loved you more than all.
5a. O cry and weep!
How deep the woe!
What sorrow seeped with guilt
into our womanhood
because the serpent hissed his wicked plan!
5b. That woman, whom God made to be
the mother of the world,
had pricked her womb
with the wounds of ignorance,
and offered to her offspring
the full inheritance of grief.
6a. But, O dawn,
forth from your womb has come the sun anew;
the guilt of Eve he’s washed away
and through you offered humankind a blessing
even greater than the harm that Eve bestowed.
6b. O Lady Savior,
who offered to the human race a light
anew: together join the members of your Son
into the heavens’ harmony.
Here’s a YouTube video with Sequentia’s recording:And here’s a slower version via Grooveshark by the Oxford Camerata:
Even in Hildegard’s own lifetime, this incredible sequence in praise of the Virgin was recognized as one of her best. Indeed, according to reports gathered into the Acta Canonizationis (“Proceedings of Canonization”) prepared by three canons of Mainz and sent to Rome in 1233, it may have been one of Hildegard’s personal favorites:
The lay-sister [conversa] Hedwig from Alzey says this and adds under oath that blessed Hildegard was almost constantly bed-ridden because of illness by the scourge of God, except for those times when she was illumined with the Holy Spirit. At the Holy Spirit’s touch, she would then walk about the cloister and sing the sequence that begins, “O virga ac diadema.” With this the door-keeper and the cellarer agree under oath.
It is not hard to see why Hildegard might have been so fond of it, as it deftly expresses much of her central theology of the place of the forma mulieris (4a) in salvation history—the “form of woman” stretching from the mater omnium (Eve, the “mother of all,” 5b) through Mary to Hildegard herself as a virgin mother of the community of nuns under her care.
The sequence follows a ring structure: the opening celebration of Mary’s royal stature (1a) is mirrored with the images of dawn and salvatrix (“Lady Savior”) in the final strophes (6a/b), with the middle two verse pairs forming the central thematic—the repeated opening image of the blossoming virga and its predestination (3a), the Virgin’s womb as golden material (3b), and the femininity it restores as mirror and and embrace of all creation (4a), praised by the music of heaven and beloved as God’s bride (4b). In between these three thematic peaks come two mirrored meditations on the fallenness from which the Virgin’s womb and its fruit rescue humanity: on the one hand, the path of blooming life that Adam stripped from his progeny (1b-2a), restored in the Virgin by the procreative power not of created things but of the divine Creator (2b); and on the other hand, the lamentable pain and sorrow introduced into womanhood (in mulierem) and her progeny by Eve’s thorny embrace of ignorance (5a/b).
|“O virga ac diadema” 1a-b|
Riesenkodex, fol. 473vb (bottom)
The grace of this sequence, moreoever, lies in its masterful musical composition, as music and word inextricably intertwine. As we noted in our discussion of another of her sequences (O Euchari in leta via), Hildegard usually writes in the older compositional form of paired versicles, in which the two strophes of a pair share a common melody between them, but the piece is free to use different melodies for each successive pair. Hildegard, however, often allows herself more musical freedom than is traditional, as the textual expression presses beyond the strictly parallel melodies of each pair. In today’s sequence, for example, Strophe 2b exhausts its parallel music from 2a at the end of its third line, while its fourth line takes its musical structure from the opening of strophe 3a—yet the words spill over between the two musical motifs, as sed divina (“but divine…”) ends the motif of strophe 2, and the rest of that phrase, claritas… (“…radiance…”) takes up in part the new theme of strophe 3. The final phrase of strophe 4a, moreover, cycles several times through its musical motif to cover the elaborate parallel images of speculum and amplexionem, whereas its paired strophe 4b needs only one round of its final phrase to express God’s love for the Virgin. The reverse occurs in the next pair of verses, as the final phrase of 5a is doubled in 5b to accommodate Eve’s two actions, decerpsit (“plucked”) and protulit (“offered”).
|“O virga ac diadema” 1b-6b|
Riesenkodex, fol. 474ra-b
Most of the verses open with one of Hildegard’s most characteristic musical tropes, an upward leap of a fifth—but the piece has to work its way up to it. The opening set begins with a modest upward movement of a third in 1a, which is then expanded at the opening of 2a into the piece’s anchorhold of the upward fifth from A to E. That opening leap is used in all remaining verses, with the singular exception of 5a and 5b, whose opening drops a half-step and is subdued and almost plangent, reflecting their focus on Eve’s fallen womanhood. These verses do invoke that leap from A to E, however, to open their third musical phrases on per consilium and cum vulneribus, where the melody then leaps another fourth from the E up to the octave A, the highest note in the piece. This motif that traverses the octave in just three notes was introduced in the second pair of strophes, where it appears on qua Adam and nec aer. Thus, three of its four uses center specifically on the Fall, with only one transmuted from the Fall to its redemption in the Virgin in strophe 2b, and there in the negative context of contrasting fallen humanity’s earthly begetting with the Virgin’s divine overshadowing.
It is in the variations upon this three-note octave span, moreover, that Hildegard pushes beyond the Fall. The sequence of notes on claritas in nobilissima (last line of 2b), which introduces already a portion of the opening melody of 3a, also contains those three notes (A, E, and the octave A) as anchor points, while another octave span from A to A appears in the melody of de quo Deus formam (“from which God [brought] the form,” 4a), but now with the middle anchor at D. That expansion of the leap to the high A into a fifth is found also on Deus (“God,” 3a), auream (“golden,” 3b), and o laudabilis (“o praise-worthy,” 4b). The high note then finds its most sustained use in the final verses on ventre tuo (“your womb,” 6a) and novum lumen (“a new light,” 6b), completing the divinely-driven redemption of womanhood as the dawn’s light bursts forth from Mary’s golden, praise-worthy womb.
The invocation, modulation, or absence of these musical motifs makes the mirroring of Adam and Eve in this piece particularly striking. They appear to have opposite but complementary roles in passing on the state of fallenness to their posterity of humankind: Adam stripped us of the abundant life in which he was first created, replacing it with a fundamentally different kind of life. Eve, meanwhile, gave that different kind of life its character: one full of grief (plenum dolorem, 5b), of guilt (crimina, 6a), and of harm (nocuisset, 6a). Unusually, however, Hildegard has used the language of the bloom for Adam, rather than for Eve—in 1b, Mary’s flowering (floruisti) is contrasted with Adam’s different mode (in alia vicissitudine) of blossoming, rather than against Eve. This likely reflects one of Hildegard’s unique inversions of the Fall in Scivias II.1, in which Adam plays a crucial role.
|Scivias II.1: Creation, Fall, & Redeemer.|
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 51r.
The blazing fire, by means of the flame which burned ardently with a gentle breath, offered to the human a white flower, which hung in the flame as dew hangs on the grass. For, after Adam was created, the Father in His lucid serenity gave to Adam through His Word in the Holy Spirit the sweet precept of obedience, which in the fresh viridity [in umida viriditate] of fruitfulness hung upon the Word; for the sweet odor of sanctity trickled from the Father in the Holy Spirit through the Word and brought forth fruit in greatest abundance, as the dew falling on the grass makes it grow. Its scent came to the human’s nostrils, but he did not taste it with his mouth or touch it with his hands; for he tried to know the wisdom of the Law with his intelligence, as if with his nose, but did not perfectly digest it by putting it in his mouth, or fulfil it in full blessedness by the work of his hands. And thus he turned away and fell into the thickest darkenss, out of which he could not pull himself; for by the Devil’s counsel, he turned his back on the divine command and sank into the gaping mouth of death, so that he did not seek God either by faith or by works; and therefore, weighed down by sin, he could not rise to true knowledge of God, until He came Who obeyed His Father sinlessly and fully.
This context then informs Hildegard’s inversion in strophe 5b of today’s sequence, in which Eve “pricked her womb / with the wounds of ignorance.” The forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil now has thorns that tear away at the mother’s womb by plunging its pristine procreativity into the dark and painful darkness of death, in which one cannot see or “rise to true knowledge of God.”
As the blooming branch predestined from the very beginning of creation (3a), the Virgin Mary embodies the opposite images that counter the Fall. The explicit invocation of her eternal predestination together with her Son sets “the eternal counsel” (Ps. 32:11) of the Incarnation against the consilium serpentis (“the serpent’s wicked plan,” 5a). Moroever, the celebration of womanhood as the speculum of God’s every beauty (“mirror,” 4a) recalls another feminine figure and manifestation of that eternal counsel—Sapientia, Divine Wisdom, whom Hildegard paired with the Virgin explicitly in O magna res, a piece whose themes and structure complement today’s sequence. Finally, Hildegard’s favorite image of the Virgin as the dawn “who offered to the human race a light / anew” (6b) articulates her place in rescuing humankind from the darkness of disobedience and thus ignorance.
To address the Virgin Mary as Salvatrix could be seen, from the perspective of modern theology, as problematic, in parallel to the theological contention that swirls over the title Co-Redemptrix, “Co-Redeemer.” It is clear enough from the context of this sequence, however, that Hildegard is not suggesting an independent salvific role for the Virgin. Rather, she is invoking another of her striking gender inversions to express the radical complementarity between feminine and masculine, Mother and Son, in the central event of salvation history. The Virgin’s paradoxically fertile womb is the necessary instrument for mediating the Incarnation, and the blessing that she offers is one of light and life. Moreover, Hildegard strives here to rescue the fullness of divine knowledge—the light from which Adam fell in disobedience, the thorns of ignorance that brought pain to Eve’s womb—from an overly rigid gender stratification that reserves the rationality of wisdom to the male and its emotional effervescence to the female. To paraphrase Scripture, we are wise by rationality alone, but rationality without the light of Love is dead.
Finally, it must be remembered that the concept of salvation is rooted in the physical idea of health: the Latin term salus meant “good health” long before it meant, “salvation.” Hildegard had a tendency to use the term polysemously, often and intentionally leaving it ambiguous at times whether salus referred to physical health or spiritual health. (This happens frequently in Liber Divinorum Operum, especially the macrocosmic/microcosmic allegories of I.2-II.1, in which there is a constant allegorical interplay between the physical body and the state of the soul.) Thus, the title Salvatrix invokes the Virgin Mary’s role as healer, as seen for example in O clarissima mater. Her healing is holistic, reintegrating complementary roles that had fallen apart between Adam and Eve in the Fall. Her blooming branch blossomed with the lily of obedience refused by Adam; and it brought forth the soothing balm that heals those wounds of ignorance and blesses where Eve brought harm, setting the broken limbs (collige membra, 6b) of her Son, the weak and fallen members of Church, and gathering them togeting “into the heavens’ harmony.”
 Latin text adapted from Barbara Newman’s edition of Symphonia (Cornell University Press, 1988, 2nd ed. 1998), pp. 128-30, in consultation with the musical transcriptions of Beverly Lomer; translation by Nathaniel Campbell. Newman’s edition ignores the places where the parallels in the music between strophe pairs break through syntactic units in the language. The line breaks in this presentation of the text correspond to the musical phrases, even when that causes awkward enjambments of adjectives and nouns or of verbs from their subjects. ↩
 Acta Canonizationis, 9.2:
Hoc idem dicit Hedewigis de Alceia iurata adiciens, quod beata Hildegardis in lecto egritudinis continue fuit ex flagello Dei, nisi cum Spiritu sancto fuit perlustrata, et tunc sequentiam instinctu sancti Spiritus, que sic incipit: “O virga ac diadema,” per claustrum ambulando decantabat. Cum qua concordat custodissa et celleraria iurate.In Vita Sanctae Hildegardis. Leben der heiligen Hildegard von Bingen. Canonizatio Sanctae Hildegardis. Kanonisasition der heiligen Hildegard, ed. and trans. Monika Klaes, Fontes Christiani 29 (Freiburg et al.: Herder, 1998), p. 256. ↩
 It is a more developed treatment of similar themes laid out in the verses of O magna res. ↩
 As it appears in the Riesenkodex (the very last note at the bottom of fol. 473vb), strophe 1b begins on G rather than the modal A on which all other verses of the piece begin, thus making 1b a leap of a fourth to C. It is likely, however, that this G is an error and hould really be an A, in parallel to the opening of 1a. I owe my thanks to Beverly Lomer for her helpful explanations of this. ↩
 See Nathaniel M. Campbell, “Imago expandit splendorem suum: Hildegard of Bingen’s Visio-Theological Designs in the Rupertsberg Scivias Manuscript,” Eikón / Imago 4 (2013, Vol. 2, No. 2), pp. 1-68, esp. pp. 22-3 and 47-8; accessible online here. ↩
 Adapted from the trans. of Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), p. 153; Latin text ed. Führkötter and Carlevaris, CCCM 43 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1978), pp. 116-7. ↩
 I’ve discussed this interplay between traits traditionally associated with one gender or the other, and the necessary coherence of the two, in “Divine Love as both Creative and Rational: The Theophany of Caritas in Hildegard of Bingen’s Liber Divinorum Operum.” ↩