Thursday, September 4, 2014

O clarissima

Responsory for the Virgin (D 153v-154r, R 467vb-468ra) by Hildegard of Bingen Back to Table of Contents
R. O clarissima
mater sancte medicine,
tu ungenta
per sanctum Filium tuum
in plangentia vulnera mortis,
que Eva edificavit
in tormenta animarum.
Tu destruxisti mortem,
edificando vitam.

R. Ora pro nobis
ad tuum natum,
stella maris, Maria.

V. O vivificum instrumentum
et letum ornamentum
et dulcedo omnium deliciarum,
que in te non deficient.

R. Ora pro nobis
ad tuum natum,
stella maris, Maria.

Gloria Patri et Filio
et Spiritui sancto.

R. Ora pro nobis
ad tuum natum,
stella maris, Maria.
R. O radiant bright,
O mother of a holy medicine,
Your ointments
through your holy Son
you’ve poured
upon the plangent wounds of death,
by Eve constructed
as torture chambers of the soul.
This death you have destroyed
by building life.

R. Pray for us
to your child,
O sea star Mary.

V. O instrument of life
and joyful ornament,
and sweetener of all delights,
that in you will not fail.

R. Pray for us
to your child,
O sea star Mary.

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

R. Pray for us
to your child,
O sea star Mary.
Latin collated from the transcription of Beverly Lomer and the edition of Barbara Newman; translation by Nathaniel M. Campbell.

by Nathaniel M. Campbell and Beverly Lomer

C mode
Range: G below the final to D an octave and one note above the final
Setting: melismatic and neumatic
Key modal tones: C, G

This responsory is closely linked with the one that precedes it in the Dendermonde manuscript, Ave Maria, O auctrix vite. The two might be considered as companion pieces, perhaps to be sung together as the last two of the four responsories sung for matins on a Marian feast day; together, they construct a striking image of the Virgin’s salvific agency. Their most consonant shared theme is Hildegard’s treatment of the paired relationship between Mary and Eve and their respective roles in salvation history, which in both of these pieces uses the peculiar imagery of architecture—Eve constructing one set of buildings, e.g. the “torture chambers of the soul;” and Mary tearing down those mortal halls and building life in their place. The two pieces also share many structural features: well-organized around rhetorical principles, they are both set in the less common C mode, with similar melodic structures (e.g. a highly melismatic opening that gives way to a more neumatic verse of fewer notes). In fact, there are several melodic fragments that involve the high registral pitches that appear and are deployed rhetorically in both pieces.

The lengthy melismas of the opening five lines confirm the piece’s thematic focus on Mary’s role as healer of our mortal wounds, and have also led us to identify the salutation as O Clarissima rather than O Clarissima mater, as it is sometimes given, based on Hildegard’s careful balancing of the musical phrases. O clarissima is outlined by the modal final, C; and both O clarissima and mater begin with the same melodic gesture. To place mater with the first phrase would require that sancte medicine begin with a downward leap from G to C, a gesture that Hildegard does not employ for phrase openings. In addition, it would create unequal phrases between lines 1 and 2 (p. 1) of the transcription. The phrases O Clarissima and mater sancte medicine are similar in length and, in fact, melodic variants of each other.

As in Ave Maria, O auctrix vite, emphasis is placed on Mary’s saving actions. The first rise to the high C above the final occurs on tu ungenta (“you [have poured] ointments”), which receives further emphasis because the pitch is approached and left by leaps. Moreover, this key motive is repeated once in the next line on sanctum Filium (“holy Son”) and twice in the line after that, on infudisti (“you’ve poured”); those third and fourth lines also resemble each other melodically. Although the salvific relationship between Mother and Son is complementary and integral, Hildegard emphasizes the Virgin’s significant agency by doubling the high C motive on infudisti and setting it to the longest melisma thus far: Mary herself pours out the ointment through her Son upon the wounds of death. As in Ave Maria, O auctrix vite, she complements traditional textual elements that emphasize Christ’s Incarnation with a musical emphasis on the role of his Mother.

We see here also Hildegard’s symbolist theological mind in action as she identifies Mary’s mediation of the Incarnation as mother with the doctor’s mediation of the healing powers of medicinal balm. Moreover, the mortal wounds to which she brings her aid—the “torture chambers” built by Eve—are again, as in Ave Maria, O auctrix vite, melodically articulated with the slightly dissonant use of the high D above the final on the phrase que Eva edificavit. In this way, the evocative poetic image of “the wounds of death” themselves lamenting their pain as Eve built them into our torments and tortures is given musical voice.

The resolution of that tension is found in the repetendum, Ora pro nobis ad tuum natum stella maris Maria, which again serves the rhetorical function of summing up or peroratio. It includes all of the key melodic motives that were rhetorically deployed in the respond to construct Mary’s significant salvific agency, thus using the music to graft Hildegard’s more ingenious images of the Virgin as healing balm onto the more traditional image of the star of the sea. Interestingly, the longest and most elaborate melisma is assigned to the word maris (“sea”), perhaps as an additional (musical) metaphor highlighting Mary’s life-giving attributes, or as a play on the etymological link between maris and Maria.

In another structural parallel to Ave Maria, O auctrix vite, in the verse, which offers the rather more conventional imagery of Mary as joyful ornanment and instrument, the melismatic setting of the respond gives way to a neumatic treatment, offering less rhetorical emphasis. Yet in its own way, it amplifies the opening image in its celebration of the Virgin’s healing properties—as the instrument that brings life into the world, her ointments possess the decorous perfume that beautifies the world with its ornament and exudes the very sweetness of its delights. Moreover, Hildegard notes that, in contrast to worldly sweets, which the medieval mind readily recognized would always (and often quickly) pass to bitterness, the Virgin’s sweetness can never fail. Yet Hildegard herself was all too aware of the pain that even the healer could suffer—as Barbara Newman notes, the imagery of medicine likely came easily to Hildegard’s mind because of her own interest in healing and medicinal cures, an interest that may have derived heavily from her own chronic illnesses and infirmities (Symphonia, p. 272). The Virgin Mother’s office as healer works in Hildegard’s symbolist mind in alignment with her own experiences and with Virgin Mother Church’s agency as doctor, healer, and hospital. Thus, the image of Ecclesia as the sweet, aromatic balm for the wounds of her people appears also in Hildegard’s antiphon for the Church, O orzchis Ecclesia.

The sacramental locus of that healing power mediated by both Virgin Mothers—Mary and Ecclesia—is the eucharistic Body of Christ. If we connect today’s imagery of medicine with the image of the virginal body as sparkling gem—as used, for example, in the antiphon to the Virgin, O splendidissima gemma —we arrive at one of Hildegard’s more evocative analogies for the Eucharist in Scivias II.6.13, of medicinal ointment and sapphire (the voice from heaven speaks):
That oblation, by the power of God, is invisibly borne on high and brought back again in an instant, and so warmed by the heat of the Divine Majesty that it becomes the body and blood of God’s Only-Begotten. People do not perceive this mystery with their bodily senses; it is as if someone encased a precious unguent [unguentum] in simple bread and dropped a sapphire into wine, and I then changed them into a sweet taste, so that in your mouth, O human, you could not taste the unguent in the bread or the sapphire in the wine, but only the sweetness [suavem saporem]—as My Son is sweet and mild. What does this mean? The unguent symbolizes My Son, born of the Virgin, Who was anointed with precious ointment. How? He was clothed with holy humanity, which is a precious unguent, pouring so sweetly over the deadly wounds of humans that when they turn back to Him they will no longer putrefy or stink with Adam’s perdition. And the sapphire symbolizes the Divinity in My Son, Who is the Cornerstone; He is meek and humble, for he did not grow from the root of human flesh begotten by a man and a woman, but was miraculously incarnate by My fire in the sweet Virgin, and therefore his body and blood are sweet and delightful for believers to take in.[1]
Hildegard emphasizes that the very sweetness by which this precious unguent heals is Christ's humanity, received from his Virgin Mother. She reiterates this point in the next two chapters (Scivias II.6.14-15), where she explicitly models the priest who performs the Eucharist upon the Virgin Mary. A few chapters later, Hildegard again discusses the Eucharist as medicine, this time in the exegetical context of the Song of Songs (Scivias II.6.21):
“Eat, my friends; drink, and be inebriated, my dearly beloved!” [Song of Songs 5:1] What does this mean? Eat in faith, you who through holy baptism have come to My friendship; for the spilled blood of My Son has purged you from Adam’s fall, and as you chew the true medicine in the body of My Only-Begotten, the repeated deeds of crime and injustice you have done will be mercifully wiped out for you.
Finally, Hildegard’s lengthy exegesis of another verse from the Song of Songs (2:3) in Scivias III.8.16 subtly returns to the eucharistic language of II.6 to explain why the Bride is so enamored of the Bridegroom’s sweet fruit. The faithful soul—which, for Hildegard, can only mean here the virginal soul, unsullied by any earthly spouse as she yearns for her heavenly Bridegroom—declares that, “His sweetest fruit, which I tasted in my soul when I sighed for God, is sweeter to me than all the sweetness of carnal delights I used to feel.” And why is this fruit so sweet, Hildegard asks?
Because He was born of the Virgin, and so has the sweetest savor and the strongest unguent, which He distills like balsam; which is the resurrection unto life, by which the dead have been raised. And that unguent has the healing in it that through His Incarnation cleanses the wounds of sin; for the Incarnation is full of sanctity and sweetness and all the virtues of virginity.
Further Resources for O clarissima
  • Hildegard of Bingen, Symphonia, ed. Barbara Newman (Cornell Univ. Press, 1988 / 1998), pp. 112 and 271-2.
  • Lomer, Beverly R. “Rhetoric and the Creation of Feminist Consciousness in the Marian Songs of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179).” Ph.D. diss., Florida Atlantic University, 2006.
  • Lomer, Beverly. Music, Rhetoric and the Sacred Feminine. Saarbrücken, Germany: Verlag Dr. Müller, 2009.
  • For a discography of this piece, see the comprehensive list by Pierre-F. Roberge: Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) - A discography


[1] All quotes from Hildegard’s Scivias have been adapted from the Classics of Western Spirituality translation by Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (New York: Paulist Press, 1990); Latin text from the edition of Adelgundis Führkötter and Angela Carlevaris, CCCM 43 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1978). 

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