Thursday, November 20, 2014

Laus Trinitati

Votive antiphon for the Trinity (D 157r) by Hildegard of Bingen Back to Table of Contents
Laus Trinitati, que sonus et vita
ac creatrix omnium in vita ipsorum est,
et que laus angelice turbe
et mirus splendor archanorum,
que hominibus ignota sunt, est,
et que in omnibus vita est.
Praise to the Trinity—the sound and life
and creativity of all within their life,
the praise of the angelic host
and wondrous, brilliant splendor hid,
unknown to human minds, it is,
and life within all things.
Latin collated from the transcription of Beverly Lomer and the edition of Barbara Newman; translation by Nathaniel M. Campbell.

by Nathaniel M. Campbell

In this antiphon, Hildegard grapples with the Trinity with her usual verve—but it remains insufficient to the task and its vitality becomes muddled. (This may perhaps account for the fact that it is one of only two pieces that appear in the earlier Dendermonde manuscript, but which were left out of the later Riesenkodex—the other is O frondens virga.)

Its opening image of the praise owed to the Trinity is connected, in the middle of the antiphon, to the praise of the heavenly host, whose symphony attempts to reflect the Trinitarian mystery. The dominant theme, however, is life, first within the Trinity, and then in God’s every creation. Both the thrice-repeated vita and its musical treatment confirm this point: the cascade of descending notes on vita at the end of the first line (line 2 in the transcription) is redoubled in its third appearance in the final line, which carries the longest melisma of any syllable in the piece and spans every note save one of the antiphon’s complete range.

Around that central conceit of life Hildegard builds a trinity of images—sound, life, and creatrix, the feminine version of the noun creator; yet, Hildegard gives us no indication of how this triplex is to be applied to the persons of the triune God. We know from her vision of the Trinity in the Scivias (Part II, Vision 2) that she did not lack the creativity or nerve to employ innovative images. Indeed, that vision’s supple language is justly famous:[1]
Scivias II.2: The Trinity.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 47r.
Then I saw a bright, serene light (serenissima lux), and in this light a human figure the color of sapphire (sapphirini coloris species hominis), which was all blazing with a gentle, red-glowing fire (suavissimus rutilans ignis). And that bright light bathed the whole of the red-glowing fire, and the red-glowing fire bathed the bright light; and the bright light and the red-glowing fire poured over the whole human figure, so that the three were one light in one power of potential.
Hildegard then offers three more analogies for Father, Son, and Spirit respectively:
  • a stone’s damp viridity (umida viriditas), solidity to the touch (palpabilis comprehensio), and red-sparking fire (rutilans ignis);
  • a flame’s brilliant light (splendida claritas), scarlet verdure (pupureus viror), and fiery heat (igneus ardor);
  • a word’s sound (sonus), force or meaning (virtus), and breath (flatus).
In that Scivias vision, the sound of a word signifies the Father; yet, Hildegard also uses sound to signify the Holy Spirit in the hymn, O ignee Spiritus; and in the Liber Divinorum Operum, the term sonus can often signify the sound of the divine Word, that is, the Son. She uses the imagery of life-giving life for the Holy Spirit in Spiritus sanctus vivificans; yet, in today’s antiphon, the entire Trinity subsists within all life, making it difficult to identify the first appearance of vita with any specific divine person. Perhaps most puzzling is Hildegard’s choice to feminize the noun creator into creatrix, a term she uses nowhere else to describe the divinity.[2] If it is simply a case of matching the grammatical gender of Trinitas, then the masculine gender of sonus remains awkwardly out of joint.

Despite these polyvalencies, we might loosely conjecture an identification of Father with sound, Son with life, and Spirit with creatrix, based on the following conditions: first, the traditional order of the persons; second, the Scivias’ analogy of the word, in which sound corresponds to the Father; and third, the association of the Spirit with creativity in the two antiphons to the Spirit that directly precede Laus Trinitati in the Dendermonde manuscript, Spiritus sanctus vivificans and Karitas habundat.

To make such a conjecture, however, is perhaps to miss the point of Hildegard’s poetical task. The second half of the antiphon strains considerably against textual syntax and constitutes her tacit admission that all of these analogies and images must remain only partially comprehensible, as the reality to which they point remains hidden from human knowledge. As the object of angelic praise, this Trinity recalls the unseen, unknowable void that Hildegard left in the center of the concentric circles that illustrate the nine ranks of the heavenly host in Scivias I.6 (cf. O gloriosissimi lux vivens angeli and O vos angeli). Yet, Hildegard cannot remain wholly silent about this, and her attempt to describe the indescribable in a cataphatic deluge of images recalls the words of one of Walter Chalmers Smith’s most beloved hymns:
Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Great Father of Glory, pure Father of Light
Thine angels adore Thee, all veiling their sight;
All laud we would render, O help us to see:
’Tis only the splendor of light hideth Thee.
Through a fumbling attempt to describe the Trinity in images and an admission of such an attempt's epistemological impossibility, Hildegard returns in the end to the key word on which she can hang some type of certainty: vita, life. Whatever speculative failures might obtain in our attempts to joyously contemplate the Trinity, we can rest assured that the basic fact of life, of existence itself, is the most immediate revelation of the divine.

What does it mean, then, to say that life itself not only reflects but is, in a sense, the Trinity? Divine vitality is not merely one of individual simplicity, but also one of relational complexity. God lives because God lives in community, a sharing of life. The mystery of the Trinity is not merely a paradox around which we try—and repeatedly fail—to wrap our minds. Rather, the Trinity is a vocation to move outside of ourselves, to share our life, our love, our music, and our creativity with others.

Transcription and Music Notes
by Beverly Lomer and Nathaniel M. Campbell

E mode
Range: D below the final to E an octave above the final
Setting: primarily neumatic, short melimas and one long melisma on last word, vita

While the title is given as Laus Trinitati, the first full phrase encompasses line two of the transcription, which ends on the final E. A light pause can be taken at the end of line 1 if a performer so wishes, as this line ends on B, the secondary grammatical marking tone in the mode. The next phrase dips below the final to D on the opening ac, which indicates that the ideas in this phrase are closely related to the previous one; it also ends definitively on E. In using the secondary tone B, the following two phrases contain what might be considered in modern music theory incomplete pauses at the ends of lines 4 and 5.

Line 6 is somewhat ambiguous as far as phrasing is concerned. The text above has broken it into two lines in accordance with the syntactical units, in which the first relative clause of line 6 (que hominibus ignota sunt) is subordinate to the relative clause of lines 4-5; its que refers to the archanorum (“mysteries”) at the end of the previous line, while the verb est completes the relative clause of lines 4-5. The final phrase, que in omnibus vita est, is syntactically at the same level of subordination as the relative clauses of lines 2 and 4-5, all in reference to Trinitati.

Because the line as transcribed begins conventionally on the modal final E and ends on the secondary tone B, it could be sung as one phrase. If one wants to separate the ideas as per the text, then some articulation is required. Musically, the conjunction et can go with either phrase. One option would be to break after it, so that que in omnibus… begins on D, as with line 2. A breath mark has been inserted to offer some guidance.

Further Resources for Laus Trinitati


[1] Translations adapted from Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, trans. Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), pp. 161-5; Latin text from the edition of Adelgundis Führkötter and Angela Carlevaris, CCCM 43 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1978). 
[2] Its only other appearance in the corpus of her works is in Liber Vitae Meritorum, III.63, where its grammatical gender matches the antecedent impietas to denote the false “creativity” that impiety uses to rearrange and pervert the divine order. 

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