Sunday, October 12, 2014

Alleluia! O virga mediatrix

Alleluia-verse for the Virgin (R 473vb) by Hildegard of Bingen Back to Table of Contents
O virga mediatrix,
sancta viscera tua
mortem superaverunt
et venter tuus omnes creaturas
in pulchro flore de suavissima integritate
clausi pudoris tui
O branch and mediatrix,
your sacred flesh
has conquered death,
your womb all creatures
in beauty’s bloom from that exquisite purity
of your enclosèd modesty
sprung forth.
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 verse, meant to accompany the singing of the Gospel at Mass, is one of Hildegard’s elegant meditations on the Virgin Mary’s role in salvation history as prefigured in the “flowering branches” of two Old Testament figures (cf. O viridissima virga and O tu suavissima virga): Aaron’s blooming staff (Numbers 17:1-11) and the branch of the root and Tree of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1). The prefiguration was particularly fertile for medieval minds because of the similarity of the two Latin words, virgo (virgin) and virga (branch or rod), and the illustration of salvation history as a tree of life rooted in those patriarchs and blossoming into the Virgin and the fruit of her womb was popular in medieval art.

Springing from that fundamentally verdant image, this verse rings on several themes characteristic of her treatment of the Virgin Mother, images quite familiar from throughout Hildegard’s Marian corpus, e.g. O splendidissima gemma, Hodie aperuit, and Ave generosa. Her blossoming flower breaks forth like the dawn, viscerally aligned with the fruit of her womb bursting forth into the world to redeem it. The elaborate melisma on the opening Alleluia! makes this verse particularly appropriate for use during the Easter season, thus providing an additional parallel between Christ springing up from the fertile ground of Mary’s womb, a flower borne upon the light of dawn, and his rising again from the dead. The even more elaborate melisma that closes the verse on orto—the flower “sprung forth” and “raised”—re-enforces this parallel. Although Hildegard does not explicitly make a play on the parallel of womb and tomb, one cannot help but observe the juxtaposition of enclosure and openness, a paradox shared by Virgin Mother and Buried Life. The exquisite sweetness of the Virgin’s pure wholeness (suavissima integritas) is paradoxically fertile ground for the Savior, precisely because her garden remains modestly closed to the intrusions of sin and lust.

But the most powerful image of this verse, like the final verse of the sequence, O virga ac diadema, is the one that transfers salvific agency directly into the heart and flesh of the Virgin herself: she is the mediatrix, the feminine mediator, and it is her flesh (viscera tua) that overcame death (mortem superaverunt, a theme treated also in Quia ergo femina). Hildegard here invokes one of her most 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 fertile womb is the necessary instrument for mediating the Incarnation (cf. O clarissima), and she thus becomes the indispensible Mother without whom that mediation of salvation would not have been possible. That salvific power is paradoxically delicate—the tender and beautiful flower of her virgin womb can only mediate death-destroying Life to the world because it remains enclosed and modest.

Commentary: Music and Rhetoric
by Beverly Lomer

E mode
Range: D below the final to G an octave and a third above the final
Setting: melismatic and neumatic

This is a relatively straightforward piece. Phrases are outlined by the final, E, and alternatively by B.

The lengthy salutation begins with an extensive melisma on Alleluia, which is outlined by the modal final. It continues with the line, O virga mediatrix. The two lines of the salutation in the transcription should be considered one phrase, and a tick barline has been inserted to clarify.

The wording is elliptical. Hildegard attributes salvific agency to Mary’s holy womb with the lines, sancta viscera tua mortem superaverunt, et venter tuus omnes creaturas illuminavit. These lines are given more elaborate and thus emphatic musical treatment than the statement that follows, in pulchro flore, which is stated syllabically and thus briefly as opposed to what went before. This is typical of Hildegard’s Mariology in the Symphonia. She assigns a certain independent salvific power to Mary, reinforced by the music, and then adds the conventional, “through her Son” motif, which is downplayed by the melodic substructure. To fully appreciate Hildegard’s subtlety, it is important to keep in mind that music and text are inseparable for her. Thus she appears to skirt the edges of convention in these songs.

Further Resources for Alleluia! O virga mediatrix
  • Hildegard of Bingen, Symphonia, ed. Barbara Newman (Cornell Univ. Press, 1988 / 1998), pp. 124 and 276.
  • 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

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