Sunday, March 19, 2017

O pulcre facies

Psalm antiphon for Virgins (D 165r, R 471rb, Scivias III.13.7a) Back to Table of Contents
by Hildegard of Bingen
O pulcre facies
Deum aspicientes
et in aurora edificantes,
o beate virgines,
quam nobiles estis,
in quibus rex
se consideravit, cum in vobis
omnia celestia ornamenta presignavit,
ubi etiam suavissimus hortus estis,
in omnibus ornamentis redolentes.
O faces fair
that gaze on God
and build upon the dawn—
O virgins blessed,
how noble!
In you the King
can glimpse himself, for in you
he sealed once all the ornaments of heaven,
where too you are the lushest garden,
the fragrances of all its ornaments.
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

This antiphon and the responsory that follows it, O nobilissima viriditas, are the two pieces devoted to the Choir of Virgins in the celestial symphony of the final vision of Scivias (III.13.7). Whether as individual virgins in this antiphon or collectively as bearers of verdant virginity in the responsory, they are portrayed as analogues of the Virgin Mary. Were it not for the plural nouns in this antiphon and the manuscript rubrics identifying the songs as de virginibus, “for virgins,” one would be tempted to interpret them as pieces devoted to Mary, for the imagery recalls the attributes Hildegard assigns to her in the songs addressed to her. They mirror, for example, the two pieces devoted to the Virgin Mary that opened the Scivias symphony (III.13.1), O splendidissima gemma and O tu suavissima virga. In the latter responsory, the “divinity gazed upon a daughter’s beauty” (divinitas in pulcherrimam filiam aspexit), while in this antiphon, the gaze is reflected back by the beautiful faces of God’s daughters (O pulcre facies Deum aspicientes).

Other images common in Hildegard’s Marian corpus are gathered here, too—the dawn light in Hodie aperuit; the nobility of O frondens virga; and the nearly continuous imagery of the Virgin’s blooming branch and flower, enunciated here with the image of the aromatic garden (see e.g. verses 2-4 of O viridissima virga). Hildegard regularly refers to Mary as “a joyful ornament” (in the versicle of O clarissima) and a mirror of divine beauty (verse 4a of O virga ac diadema). In O quam magnum miraculum, God the King enters into “the female form subdued,” and it is quite simply woman (femina) who “builds up every sweet perfume of virtues” (omnem suavissimum odorem virtutum edificavit) to adorn the heavens. Likewise in this antiphon, God the King sees himself in the faces of the virgins as Mary was the mirror of the divine beauty.

Sanctity is often described by Hildegard as fragrant, and thus the concluding melisma on redolentes, a musical gesture of emphasis and the only melisma of any length in the piece, solidifies the theme of the special holiness of virgin women. The enclosed garden (hortus conclusus) was a common medieval metaphor for virginity, but in Hildegard’s hands (probably frequently smudged with dirt and streaked with green from actually working in the garden), it springs into beautiful, verdant, fragrant life. Experiencing the warm sunshine beaming into the garden and bursting its flowers into bloom might very well have provoked Hildegard in her praise of virgins in this antiphon, which also echoes her description of the Order of Virgins amid the towering figure of Ecclesia, Holy Mother Church in Scivias II.5.5:[1]
Scivias II.5: Orders of the Church.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 66r.
But you see that from her throat to her navel another splendor, red in color, encircles her. This means that after the teaching of the apostles had so invigorated the Church (…), there arose the noblest perfection of churchly religion, which tasted heavenly sweetness with burning ardor and stringently restrained itself in order to gird itself with secret power; rejecting the union of human coupling, it avoided the division caused by the bitterness of the flesh. How?

That splendor glows like the dawn from her throat to her breasts, for this perfection arose from the taste of the excitement of miracles and extended in virginal gladness to the sweet nourishment of churchly religion. And it shines from her breasts to her navel mixed with purple and blue; for she fortified herself for the stringency of inner chastity by the noblest training, namely by imitating the Passion of My Son to gain the celestial love He guarded in His heart. Therefore, where it glows like the dawn, its brightness shines forth as high as the secret places of Heaven; for the perfection that flowers in the state of virginity directs its strength not downward toward heavenly things, but miraculously upward to what is in Heaven.
As most perfect handmaids of the Virgin Mother Church and successors of the Virgin Mother Mary, the women in Hildegard’s convent live out virginal fecundity. The verb presignavit is, in this regard, particularly significant—it shows that virgins have a special place in God’s order and plan for the beauty of the world. At the heart of Hildegard’s perception of the relationship between eternity and time, divinity and humanity, is the notion that Christ’s Incarnation was eternally predestined. By corollary, the means by which God became Man—the Virgin Mother who bore him—was also predestined before all time; and thus, the female figures who mediate God’s presence and activity into the world after and in analogue to her are also predestined. If God had foreseen Mary’s blooming branch in the very first moment of creation (so verse 3a of O virga ac diadema), then so too did he foresee the fragrant gardens of his virgins blooming throughout the Church.

Transcription and Music Notes

E mode
Range: D below the final to G an octave and a third above the final
Setting: primarily syllabic, with some neumatic segments and one long melisma

The salutation in this antiphon is not as straightforward as is often the case, as there is no clear outlining by the final of the mode in the first phrase. O pulcre facies (“O beautiful faces”), which might be considered a brief greeting, begins on the final but concludes on A. This strategy leads to the conclusion that the next two segments should extend the initial salutation. Deum aspicientes (“gazing on God”) employs D and G as tonal markers, neither of which are usually grammatically significant pitches in this mode. This supports the notion that the phrase is an extension of the first and connected to what comes after. The final phrase, et in aurora edificantes (“and building upon the dawn”) concludes on the final It is thus possible to consider the three phrases (lines 1-3 in the transcription) as the entire salutatio. Though it is a bit long, it makes better sense musically than subdividing it. Of course, in performance, breaths might have to be taken, but the rhetorical effect would be enhanced if the entirety were conveyed as a single phrase.

O beate virgines begins the next idea, and is more predictably outlined by the modal final. The remainder of the piece employs the fifth as its grammatical marker. Lines 8 and 9 (omnia celestia ornamenta presignavit) comprise a single phrase, and a tick barline has been inserted to indicate this continuity.

The seventh line of the piece presents an odd juxtaposition of musical and textual grammar. The verb consideravit ends one grammatical phrase in the text, while the conjunction cum begins another subordinate clause. In normal practice, syntactic units of text would coincide with musical phrases, with the first phrase ending on the final (or, as in this piece, the fifth), and the next phrase beginning there. But in this line, the two textual clauses are conjoined within a single musical phrase, though the conjunction is made on the octave of the final.

The final image commences with ubi etiam suavissimus hortus estis (“where too you are the lushest garden”). The pitch B remains the primary tonal marker until the conclusion of the long melisma on redolentes on the final. The use of A to end the phrase in omnibus ornamentis is a bit surprising, as one would expect to hear B. Redolentes, however, is clearly its own unit.

Further Resources for O pulcre facies


[1] Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, trans. Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (Paulist Press, 1990), pp. 204-205; Latin text ed. Führkötter and Carlevaris, CCCM 43 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1978), pp. 179-180. 

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