Monday, December 12, 2022

Kyrie eleison

[Kyrie eleyson / leyson] Back to Table of Contents
(R 472vb) by Hildegard of Bingen

by Nathaniel M. Campbell and Beverly Lomer

Mode: F
Range: C below the final to G an octave and a second above
Setting: Melismatic

This composition is preserved in two manuscripts:
  • Hochschul- und Landesbibliothek RheinMain, Hs. 2, Riesencodex, fol. 472vb
  • Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. 1016, fol. 118v
This is Hildegard’s only musical composition for the Ordinary of the Mass (i.e. the texts that are traditionally sung as part of each celebration of the Mass: the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Sanctus and Benedictus, and the Agnus Dei). As such, it is her only musical composition for which she did not also write the words. The text is the only part of the Ordinary of the Latin Mass which is preserved in Greek, with each of the three lines sung three times before moving to the next line:
Kyrie eleison
Christe eleison
Kyrie eleison
Lord, have mercy (x3)
Christ, have mercy (x3)
Lord, have mercy (x3)
As Honey Meconi has explained,[1] Hildegard has followed a common practice of her time in composing variations for the final three repetitions of the Kyrie eleison. In the transcription, the first version of Kyrie eleison was to be used for the first three repetitions of that text, followed by three repetitions of the setting of Christe eleison. The second appearance of Kyrie eleison, which introduces a new melody for Kyrie and a revised melody for eleison (lines 3-4 in the transcription), was to be used for the next two repetitions of the Kyrie eleison. Finally, the third appearance of the Kyrie eleison (lines 5-6 in the transcription), which provides a modified ending, would close out the recitation.

This composition is in the unusual F mode, and it is also quite interesting that this mode generally requires a Bb to avoid the tritone with F. There is one notated flat, on line 4 of the transcription on the progression that begins on G and resolves to F. While the singers would know to add Bb when the interval B to F appears, the addition of the accidental is unusual. Speculatively, it was perhaps to avoid confusion, as the figure begins on G, rises to B and then descends to F. All other instances where the B to F occur are ‘stand alone’ configurations. (For Dom Joseph Pothier’s views on the tritone, see further below.)

It is also possible that the notation is intended to remind or mirror the opening figure in the responsory, O lucidissima apostolorum turba, whose first few melodic lines are shared by the Kyrie (i.e. the two compositions are contrafacts): lines 1-4 of our transcription of the Kyrie (the first Kyrie, the Christe, and the second Kyrie) correspond to lines 1-5 of our transcription of O lucidissima (O lucidissima…agnitione), while the next line in the responsory (aperiens) corresponds to elements in the final elaboration of eleison. O lucidissima ends in G mode, and it includes quite a few Bb’s, including a flat on the opening gesture that is similar to the Kyrie (the only difference is that the responsory opens on G rather than F).

Scholarship is divided over which composition came first. The responsory must certainly be one of Hildegard’s earlier works, because it belongs to the song cycle included in the last vision of Scivias. Because the Kyrie does not appear in the earlier Dendermonde manuscript but only in the later Riesencodex collection, some have suggested that it was a later composition (and that the Vienna manuscript must also postdate Dendermonde).[2] Under this hypothesis, it may even have been designed specifically as a bridge between the two sections into which the Riesencodex divides Hildegard’s music—the first section contains all of the pieces that would have been used during the Liturgy of the Hours (i.e. antiphons and responsories), while the second section contains the longer pieces (hymns, sequences, and symphoniae), most of which would or could have been used in the Mass. The Kyrie is used in both the Liturgy of the Hours and the Mass.

Alternatively, Honey Meconi has proposed that the Kyrie may in fact have been Hildegard’s first attempt at public musical composition. Under this hypothesis, the traditional parameters imposed by the genre would have been an appropriate scaffold for the first-time composer, “testing the waters before embarking on complexities such as those of the early Scivias songs” (Meconi, p. 106). Meconi also notes that this is the only piece that Hildegard composed with F as a final.
Pothier (1898),
“Kyrie de Sainte Hildegarde”
(From Bain, Fig. 5.4)

Finally, Hildegard’s Kyrie played an important role in the revival of her work at the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries, as documented by Jennifer Bain.[3] In 1878, two monks, Dom Joseph Pothier and his brother Dom Alphonse, travelled from the Abbey of Solesmes to the Wiesbaden state library, in order to transcribe and study Hildegard’s works. Dom Joseph Pothier was one of the influential fathers of the chant revival movement centered at Solesmes, and his publications of Hildegard’s music two decades later helped to propel her music to wider acclaim in church music circles. One of the most influential of Pothier’s 1898 publications was an edition and discussion of the Kyrie, whose liturgical versatility, Bain notes, “seems to be part of its subsequent appeal” (Bain, p. 183). As can be seen from the image of this edition (at right), Dom Pothier added editorial Bb’s to avoid the tritone. Nevertheless, as Bain notes, Pothier also “argues against a regular fixing of B naturals” (Bain, p. 186):
It is not that it is necessary, in general, to have to regard the tritone with fear … In many circumstances where our editions of plainchant mark the flat to avoid that which somebody thoughtlessly named the diabolus in musica [“devil in music”], the B must remain natural, as it was many times in the notation and in usage.
     (Pothier, “Kyrie de Sainte Hildegarde” [1898], as cited and trans. in Bain, p. 187)
It is also worth noting that the manuscript text appears to entirely drop the initial syllable “e-” from “e-leyson.” Some recordings and editions of this piece even adopt the text as a single line: “Kyrieleyson.” It is possible that in Hildegard’s usage, “eleison” was sung simply as two syllables, “ley-son” (our transcription follows this as the least invasive editorial interpretation of the manuscript). It should be noted that other editions add the initial “e-” back in, as in Dom Pothier’s edition included above.

Editorial note by Beverly Lomer: In this transcription, I made some changes to the way two neumes are transcribed. I have added a dotted slur to the climacus and a full slur (over the three notes) of the pressus with punctum. This is part of a review process aimed at ultimately creating selected performance scores.

Further Resources for O eterne Deus
  • Bain, Jennifer. Hildegard of Bingen and Musical Reception. The Modern Revival of a Medieval Composer. Cambridge University Press, 2015, at pp. 179-187.
  • Meconi, Honey. Hildegard of Bingen. Women Composer Series. University of Illinois Press, 2018, at pp. 105-107.
  • Pothier, Dom Joseph. “Kyrie de Sainte Hildegarde.” Revue du chant grégorien 7/3 (1898): 65-68.
  • For a discography of this piece, see the comprehensive list by Pierre-F. Roberge: Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) - A discography


[1] Honey Meconi, Hildegard of Bingen (University of Illinois Press, 2018), p. 105. 
[2] So Tova Leigh-Choate, William T. Flynn, and Margot E. Fassler, “Hearing the Heavenly Symphony: An Overview of Hildegard's Muscial Oeuvre with Case Studies,” in A Companion to Hildegard of Bingen, ed. Beverly Mayne Kienzle, Debra L. Stoudt, & George Ferzoco (Brill, 2014), pp. 163-192, at p. 173. 
[3] Jennifer Bain, Hildegard of Bingen and Musical Reception. The Modern Revival of a Medieval Composer (Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 179-187. 

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