Saturday, September 13, 2014

O quam magnum miraculum

Psalm antiphon for the Virgin (D 155r-v, R 467rb-va) by Hildegard of Bingen Back to Table of Contents
O quam magnum miraculum est
quod in subditam femineam
formam rex
Hoc Deus fecit quia humilitas
super omnia ascendit.
Et o quam magna felicitas
est in ista forma,
quia malicia,
que de femina fluxit hanc
femina postea detersit
et omnem suavissimum
odorem virtutum edificavit
ac celum ornavit
plus quam terram prius
How great the wonder is!
Into the female form subdued
the King
has come.
This God has done, for meekness
mounts o’er all.
And O how great the happiness
is in that form,
for malice,
which from a woman flowed—
a woman then this malice wiped away,
and ev’ry sweet
perfume of virtues she has raised—
the heavens graced
far more than e’er the earth
in chaos cast.
Latin collated from the transcription of Beverly Lomer and the edition of Barbara Newman; translation by Nathaniel M. Campbell.

Commentary: Themes and Theology
by Nathaniel M. Campbell

This antiphon exemplifies St. Hildegard’s theology of the feminine, as the central character is not just the Virgin Mary or Eve, but womanhood itself—“the female form” that encompasses both mothers, one fallen into chaos, the other raised in meekness to grace the heavens with her sweet perfume of virtue (cf. Quia ergo femina). While the parallel of Eve and Mary was a common trope, Hildegard’s poetic density here collapses the two into one, in order to articulate the peculiar role that Woman plays in salvation history as the revelatory face of the divine: it is through “the female form subdued” that the mighty King enters into the world, into time, into history. Hildegard intentionally combines the two paradigmatic women of Mary and Eve because of the paradoxes that suffuse that entrance of eternity into time: the agency of submission, the exaltation of humility (cf. Luke 1:52), the fortunate Fall (magna felicitas), and heavenly adornment (ornavit) excelling earthly disorder (turbavit).

As she explains in Liber Divinorum Operum I.1.17:
God chose from his stock that sleeping earth that was completely unblemished by the taste of that [fruit] by which the ancient serpent deceived the first woman. This earth was prefigured by the staff of Aaron (Num. 17:8) to be the Virgin Mary, who in her great humility was the enclosed bedchamber of the King. For when she received from the throne the message that the Highest King wished to live in her enclosure, she perceived that earth from which she was created and replied that she was the handmaid of God (Luke 1:38). The woman who was first deceived did not do this, since she desired to have that which she ought not to have had.[1]
This antiphon’s two exclamatory “how greats” establish the waypoints of salvation history—the great miracle of the Incarnation and the great “happiness” (felicitas) of the “fortunate” Fall. Yet, this felicitas is not merely the paradoxical fruit of the Fall in the coming of the Redeemer—“humankind, having community in God, has in Heaven more radiant brightness than they had before ... for after humanity’s ruin many virtues arose to raise it up again,” as Hildegard put it in Scivias I.2.30-1 (see further the Commentary on Cum erubuerint)—but also the felicity that the Virgin restores to womanhood in wiping away the wickedness of the flesh (malicia) that had marred Woman’s sacred fecundity. Thus, the second o quam magna looks both back to the Fall and forward to its resolution and the restoration of womanhood through the Virgin Mary and the Virgin Church.

Hildegard alludes to this manifestation of restored, virginal womanhood through Mary and into the Church in describing how the Virgin washed away Eve’s malice: by constructing (edificavit) a salvific structure redolent of the sweet perfume of virtues (the architectural imagery recalls the responsories, Ave Maria, O auctrix vite and O clarissima). This perfume of the gracious power by which the Church and her ministers enact the work of salvation is the sweet smell of “the blossom of celestial Zion, the mother and flower of roses and lilies of the valley,” as is sung in the great responsory for the Feast of the Assumption. These fragrant, virtuous ministries belonged particularly, in Hildegard’s mind, to the musical opus Dei that she and her order of virgins enacted every day—and thus that responsorial verse for the Virgin’s Assumption also resounded in the words of the visionary voice from heaven that declared the central place of Virginitas among the orders of the Church in Scivias II.5 (cf. O nobilissima viriditas).[2] This antiphon celebrates that assumed and enthroned Queen of Heaven with the music to which Hildegard and her nuns gave voice within the Church’s halls, a participation in the eternal, celestial symphony that resounds in the Virgin’s court. Her greater grace in heaven subsumes their ministry on earth, and the long, final melisma of today’s antiphon brings harmony to the chaos of turbavit.

Commentary: Music and Rhetoric
by Beverly Lomer

E mode
Range: B below the final to G an octave and a third above the final
Setting: primarily neumatic, with several short melismas and one long melisma on the final word

This antipon presents some tricky phrasing issues. Key modal tones are E and B, and while Hildegard uses E regularly here, the way she deploys B is less straightforward as a grammatical marker.

There are two places where we meet the ambiguous use of the final on a conjuction that could come either at the end of one phrase or the beginning of the next. This happens with quod in Lines 2 and 3 and et in lines 7 and 8 of the first page of the transcription. One of Hildegard’s signature gestures is to open a phrase with a leap from the final to the fifth above. To place quod or et respectively at the beginning of the subsequent phrase would somewhat diminish the rhetorical emphasis of the upward leap of a fifth. On the other hand, placing the conjunction at the end of the line interferes with the cadence on the previous phrase. Here, the single note E on quod in line 3 and et in line 8 of the transcription, has been placed at the beginning of the phrase. The primary reason is that the words assigned to the leap in each case are not significant images that would carry high rhetorical force. Thus, it was decided to preserve the finality of the ending on the previous lines. As Hildegard employs both strategies, either option represents a reasonable choice; it is likely that the final on each conjunction should be slurred with the following syllable’s repetition of that note, to preserve the opening emphasis of the leap.

The form of this antiphon is narrative. The contrast between Mary and Eve is present, but the emphasis is on feminine humility, which Mary personifies. Indirectly, Mary’s actions recover the pre-lapsarian purity of the feminine: Woman is redeemed through her.

The opening statement encompasses the first five lines, ending with introivit. O quam magnum miraculum is set apart for emphasis by the musical grammar, beginning and ending on E. Est (line 2, page 1) is set to a similar melody as O quam. Musical intensity increases on line 3 with the rise to C above the final on the phrase, in subditam [femineam]. Textually, formam on line 4 belongs with in subditam femineam. However, to begin the next phrase, rex introivit, on A would be muscially awkward, as A is not otherwise used as a punctuating pitch here. The melody reaches another high point, D above the final on the word rex, and the same melodic motive that appears on subditam is also found on introivit, thus linking these ideas.

E an octave above the final appears in line 6 on humilitas, and not surprisingly, the word receives additional emphasis from the leap of a fifth. The phrase concludes on the next line, and a tick barline has been inserted for clarity.

On page 2 of the transcription, the text states that woman/Mary erased the harm done by Eve. The phrase, femina postea detersit (“a woman later wiped away”), referring to the malice wrought by Eve, is outlined by B. Previously, E functioned as the demarcating pitch. Moving to B sets this idea apart. The musical grammar also helps resolve the anacolouthon (broken syntax) of shifting from malicia / que (nominative) to hanc as the accusative object of detersit, as the latter demonstrative pronoun completes the cadence of the relative clause.

The ending amplifies the contrast by placing the musical emphasis on the harm previously done by Eve. The highest pitch, G an octave and a third above the final, is reached on prius (“before,” in reference to Eve], and turbavit (“disturbed”) receives the only lengthy melisma in the song.

Further Resources for O quam magnum miraculum
  • Hildegard of Bingen, Symphonia, ed. Barbara Newman (Cornell Univ. Press, 1988 / 1998), pp. 120 and 274-5.
  • 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] Trans. by Nathaniel M. Campbell, from the Latin text of the Liber Divinorum Operum, ed. A. Derolez and P. Dronke, in CCCM 92 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1996), p. 58. 
[2] See further 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. 57-61; accessible online here

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