Thursday, September 4, 2014

Ave Maria, O auctrix vite

Responsory for the Virgin (D 153r-v, R 467v) by Hildegard of Bingen Back to Table of Contents
R. Ave Maria,
O auctrix vite,
reedificando salutem,
que mortem conturbasti
et serpentem contrivisti,
ad quem se Eva erexit
erecta cervice
cum sufflatu superbie.
Hunc conculcasti
dum de celo Filium Dei genuisti,

R. quem inspiravit
Spiritus Dei.

V. O dulcissima atque amantissima
mater, salve,
que natum tuum
de celo missum mundo edidisti:

R. quem inspiravit
Spiritus Dei.

Gloria Patri et Filio
et Spiritui sancto.

R. Quem inspiravit
Spiritus Dei.
R. Hail Mary,
O authoress of life,
rebuilding up salvation’s health,
for death you have disturbed,
that serpent crushed
to whom Eve raised herself,
her neck outstretched
with puffed-up pride.
That serpent’s head you ground to dust
when heaven’s Son of God you bore,

R. on whom has breathed
God’s Spirit.

V. O sweet and most beloved
mother, hail!
Your Son
from heaven sent you gave unto the world:

R. on whom has breathed
God’s Spirit.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit.

R. On him has breathed
God’s Spirit.
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

C Mode
Range: G below the final to D an octave and one note above the final.
Setting: melismatic with some neumatic sections

In the Dendermonde manuscript, the songs to Mary are found between the songs to God and those dedicated to the Holy Spirit, perhaps because Hildegard associated the second person of the Trinity so closely with the woman from whose womb he was born in human flesh. This “irregular” ordering was corrected in the later Riesenkodex, possibly with a view toward eliminating concerns with unorthodoxy that might have come up in the canonization proceedings that were initiated after Hildegard’s death; another possibility, however, is that the Riesenkodex supplemented the hierarchical arrangement with one according to liturgical genre. As hierarchy was a central principle of rhetorical organization and one that Hildegard both accepted and advocated in other contexts, the unusual order of the first three sets of songs in D was not likely to have been accidental. Though Mary only rarely appears as a visionary figure in Hildegard’s theological writings, the sixteen songs addressed to her in the Symphonia are the most dedicated to any one figure.

Beverly Lomer has argued elsewhere that the Marian repertory would have been primarily intended for performance by the nuns of Hildegard’s community, and therefore, unlike the theological books that were written for an outside audience, would have been free from external scrutiny (see Lomer’s work in “Further Resources” below). The unconventional imagery and almost divine agency that Hildegard assigns to Mary in the songs would support this supposition. While the more typical contemporary depiction of Mary’s role was that of mediatrix, in Hildegard’s Mariology, she assumes the status of an essential partner in the redemptory scheme. She is referred to by such fundamental titles as auctrix vite (“authoress of life”) and salvatrix (“Lady Savior,” in O virga ac diadema, verse 6b). Her radiance is both inherent and a derivative of the Son/Sun in her womb. The repetendum of O tu suavissima virga, for example, praises the moment “when the Father observed the brightness (claritas) of the Virgin when he willed his Word in her to be incarnate..” In O splendidissima gemma , Hildegard even makes the Virgin Mary the unique benefactor of the Incarnation’s gift: “This Word the Father made for you (tibi) into a man.”

The responsory Ave Maria, O auctrix vite, because it appears first in the Marian corpus, can be thought of as an introductory summary to this image of Mary as an active, salvific agent that appears in bits and pieces throughout the Marian songs; it also forms a complementary pair with the next responsory, O clarissima. It employs the less common C final, but is highly organized with C and G as the primary tonal markers, by which most phrases and themes are clearly demarcated. The first section, in which Mary’s actions as the “authoress of life” and saving agent are articulated, is set melismatically. In particular, each word of the extended salutation, Ave Maria, O auctrix vite, receives elaborate runs of notes, each outlined by the final of the mode. This emphatic strategy gains further impetus from the upward expansion of the melody on each phrase, attaining the C an octave above the final on vite. Each of Mary’s saving actions—rebuilding salvation (reedificando salutem), confounding death (mortem conturbasti), and crushing and trampling the serpent (contrivisti, conculcasti)—is also set to a lengthy melisma and outlined by the final, C. Although the respond concludes with the programmatic and conventional statement, “when you bore the Son of God from heaven,” the music emphasizes the Virgin’s actions rather than the moment of Incarnation. On the phrase, dum de celo Filium Dei genuisti, the musical setting becomes neumatic, and the tonal outlining of key words is not as prominent. Similarly, in the verse after the repetendum, the more conventional description of Mary as the tender, loving mother receives decidedly less emphatic musical treatment.

The opening respond also showcases one of Hildegard’s most characteristic Marian themes, of the Virgin Mother healing the brokenness brought into the world by the first mother, Eve. The image of Mary treading down and crushing the head of the serpent (contrivisti, conculcasti) is a classic fulfillment of God’s words of punishment to the serpent in Genesis 3:15—but Hildegard adds her own unique spin on the theme by imagining that crushing as the tearing down of the tower of death that Eve constructed as she stretched out her neck “with puffed-up pride” at the serpent’s beckoning. As Hildegard introduces Eve’s place in this drama, the music rises to the high D above the final (on erecta, “outstretched”), which might be regarded as a possible dissonance, because D is not typically deployed for emphasis in C-mode pieces. Though it appears here in a phrase that begins with G, where it would not be as unusual, the phrase ends on the C final, creating an interesting gesture of “dissonance” that is synchronous with Eve’s disturbance of the initial celestial plan. Elsewhere, Hildegard often mitigates Eve’s sin by associating it with her ignorance and placing the blame on the serpent. Here, however, Eve’s pride is contrasted with Mary’s saving act, as the semi-dissonant high D motive that first appears on erecta is repeated on conculcasti (“ground to dust”). In place of Eve’s puffed-up pride, Hildegard imagines Mary, the “authoress” but also “foundress” (the double meaning of auctrix), building up a new edifice, of life and of salvation (vite, salutem). A similar melodic strategy appears in the first half of the respond, where the high C motive that appears first on vite reappears on serpentem, thus contrasting Mary’s authorization of life with the destruction wrought by the serpent. Both of these upper register emphatic melodic motives then appear in the refrain, which serves as a musical peroratio or summing up, recalling the key ideas and images that were associated with them in the narrative as the text of the repetendum suffuses Christ’s Incarnation with the breath of the Holy Spirit. In this way, Hildegard uses the marriage of text and music to keep a constant, connective balance between the integrated roles of Virgin Mother and Incarnate Son in salvation history.

The breath of the Holy Spirit also plays a double role, as that breath both conceived Christ in the Virgin’s womb and propelled the apostles in their mission to found the Church. The relative pronoun quem in the first repetendum refers to Christ, the Filium Deum at the end of the respond; but in its second repetition after the verse, it could just as easily refer to the mundo, “the world” to which the Virgin has given her Son in mission, in complement to John 3:16 and thus fulfilling the promise of the Spirit to the world in John 14:17-26. Subtle shifts in the reference of the repetendum between respond and verse are characteristic of Hildegard’s responsories (see e.g. O vis eternitatis), and she often paraphrases Scripture in her Marian lyrics, with the Virgin taking the active, feminine role in complement to the masculine role of God (see e.g. Quia ergo femina). The Virgin’s role in the incarnational and salvific “mission to the world” (missum mundo) is one that Hildegard understood her own order of virgins to especially imitate in the course of salvation history. Thus, as Barbara Newman has noted, architectural imagery is frequent in Hildegard’s music in part because Hildegard herself was engaged in refounding and rebuilding a monastery that had fallen into ruin and neglect (the Rupertsberg, to which she moved her community of nuns in 1150), as well as later founding a daughter house across the river at Eibingen (Symphonia, p. 271). But there is a deeper theological significance here, as well, for Hildegard’s symbolist theological mind connects the first mother (Eve), Christ’s virgin mother (Mary), the virgin mother Church, and the Church’s heavenly exemplar and future perfection, the Heavenly Jerusalem. Mary thus serves as the “architect” for the Church, the City of God’s People, whose hallmark is life.

For Hildegard, each of these female faces were (and are) manifestations of the divine and “eternal counsel” (Ps. 32[33]:11), that is, God’s eternal and predestined will that his Son would be incarnate. This theme appears also in several of Hildegard’s pieces to the Father and Son (e.g. O vis eternitatis and O quam mirabilis est), for it was a key of her theological vision. With the Marian pieces in her oeuvre, Hildegard explores the feminine faces of that irruption. The eternally predestined irruption of divinity into time was mediated from the very beginning by the archetypal mothers and their procreative potential—a motherhood shaken by the pain of sin through Eve, renewed into life through Mary, and perpetuated in history by Mother Church.

Further Resources for Ave Maria, O auctrix vite
  • Hildegard of Bingen, Symphonia, ed. Barbara Newman (Cornell Univ. Press, 1988 / 1998), pp. 110 and 271.
  • 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.
  • Lomer, Beverly. “Hildegard of Bingen: Music, Rhetoric and the Divine Feminine,” in Journal of the International Alliance of Women and Music, vol. 18, No. 2, 2012.
  • For a discography of this piece, see the comprehensive list by Pierre-F. Roberge: Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) - A discography


  1. Around what year would Hildegard have written this?

    1. Hildegard likely wrote this piece sometime in the 1150's, after she and her nuns had moved to the Rupertsberg. She likely had started composing music in the 1140's, as found in the Scivias song cycle (which Margot Fassler has shown was linked into the various altars of the monastery church of the Disibodenberg), but this piece is not part of that cycle. While some of her compositions (such as the Office for St. Ursula) may have come later, in the 1160's or even as late as 1170, it is likely that she had finished the bulk of her musical work by the time she began writing the Liber vite meritorum in 1158, as she explicitly mentions her Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum in that work's prologue.