Thursday, July 7, 2022

O beata infantia

Psalm antiphon for St. Disibod [Feast, July 8; Translation, Sept. 8] Back to Table of Contents
(R 470vb-471ra) by Hildegard of Bingen
O beata infantia
electi Disibodi,
que a Deo ita inspirata est
quod postea sanctissima opera
in mirabilibus Dei
ut suavissimum odorem balsami
O blessed childhood
of Disibod, the chosen—
an age inspired so by God
that then such holy works
within God’s wonders
you distilled,
like balsam’s freshest scent.
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

Hildegard likely composed this antiphon around 1170, while writing The Life of St. Disibod, to round out the liturgical office started with her three earlier pieces (O mirum admirandum, O viriditas digiti Dei, and O presul vere civitatis). It follows a standard hagiographical conceit that notes the presence of miraculous holiness already in the childhood of a great saint. As Hildegard explains in The Life of St. Disibod:[1]
Then, awake in body and mind, through the loving-kindness of wisdom, I heard a voice from heaven, which said: “Disibod, the chosen of God [electus Dei], inspired from his infancy [ab infantia sua…inspiratus] by the Holy Spirit, as were blessed Nicholas and blessed Benedict and others like them, longed with a thirsting heart for every good that he saw or heard.” For this reason it can be said of him: You have perfected praise from the mouth of infants and nurslings because of your enemies, so you may destroy the enemy and the avenger [Ps 8:2 (8:3)].

This is to be understood in the following way. In the good feelings of infants, who do not yet have the power of speech, and of those who ought to be sucking milk rather than doing miracles, you, who are the Lord of all, have brought the praises of your name to perfection. You have often worked your miracles in them, when you so inspired those not yet fully developed to bring forth many things unknowingly speaking and acting in the Holy Spirit, and when you have strengthened others against the claims of the flesh with such fortitude that they strive toward heavenly things with all desire and do not do the works of the flesh by sinning. Let no one have any doubt whether in these blessed people the serpent’s cunning will impede the doing of these good and holy things. For, you perfected these things on account of your enemies [Ps 8:2 (8:3)], namely, the doomed angels, so that to their confusion they saw your power in childish ignorance. Thus you destroy that enemy, who rejects you in all good things, and the avenger [Ps 8:2 (8:30)], the one who throws the rocks and spears of his impiety [cf. Eph 6:16] against your words and miracles by criticizing and corrupting them.

These evils had no success in such blessed men, because they spoke what was right. Through his gifts, God was at work in blessed Disibod from his infancy to his old age, so that in his boyhood his play did not involve wickedness, and in his youth he did not burn with wantonness, and in his mature old age his gaze did not stray to the left. In his heart and body he abandoned all the pomp of this world. Because of this some claimed he was stupid, others that he was vain, others that he was mistaken, but others said that he was wonderful in his works [cf. Ps 139 (138):14]. They asked, “What is is it that he [is] doing?”
     —Vita S. Dysibodi episcopi, cc. 1-3
Barbara Newman notes that Hildegard’s own childhood was marked by visionary “precocity” (Symphonia, p. 292), and Hildegard here seems to project her own experience, with all of the complications that came with it, onto the blank canvas of Disibod and the generic trope of a saintly prodigy. Moreover, the antiphon displays two particularly Hildegardian characteristics. The first is the slightly strange way in which Hildegard often abstracts the subject. In the prose of her Life of St. Disibod, she introduces the saint straightforwardly: “Disibod, the chosen of God, inspired from his infancy by the Holy Spirit [Electus Dei Dysibodus, ab infantia sua Spiritu Sancto … inspiratus].” But in the poetic register of the antiphon, Hildegard shifts the inspiration to the childhood itself (infantia … que a Deo ita inspirata est).

The second element that puts Hildegard’s stamp on this piece is the image of “balsam’s freshest scent” (suavissimum odorem balsami). Balsam is one of the ingredients in chrism, the holy oil used in Christian churches for sacramental anointing and crafted and blessed at the hands of bishops. As a result, Hildegard’s characteristic term for a bishop is pigmentarius, “spice maker,” a term she also applies to Disibod in The Life of St. Disibod. Moreover, she dynamically deployed the image of this aromatic sap dripping from its tree to express the miraculous appearance of the Son of God in the womb of the Virgin Mary (cf. verse 2 of O tu suavissima virga; Scivias 2.3.13). For Hildegard, the natural extension of that image is to see the monastic life of virginity as exuding in the same way—she uses the simile in Scivias 2.5.13 for the origins of the monastic way of life, and it appears in the opening of Columba aspexit to express the glistening sanctity of St. Maximin. Balsam thus provides Hildegard a way to imagine to the aromatic expression of sanctity and virtue.

Transcription and Music Notes
by Beverly Lomer

Mode: A
Range: G below the final to G above the final
Setting: syllabic, neumatic and one long melisma

This is a short work in the A modality. The phrasing is not as regularly punctuated by the final or fifth of the mode as is typical of Hildegard. number of lines begin with G below the final, and the performer might consider the use of G as a connector in some cases. For example, the first two lines of the transcription could be connected as one thought - an expanded salutation: “O blessed childhood of Disibod, the chosen.” Lines 4, 5 and 6 appear to use non standard pitches as opening notes intentionally. Staves 6 and 7 comprise one phrase and can probably be performed without a pause.

On the fourth staff the reader will note that there is a missing pitch. I added E as a suggestion. Also the B that appears in parentheses is faint in the manuscript - the ink could have chipped or perhaps it was a stray mark. It makes sense if one wishes to avoid the leap of a fourth.

Further Resources for O beata infantia


[1] Hildegard of Bingen, Two Hagiographies: Vita sancti Ruppert confessoris; Vita sancti Dysibodi episcope, ed. Christopher P. Evans, trans. Hugh Feiss (Dallas Medieval Texts and Translations, 11; Paris, Leuven, Walpole, MA: Peeters, 2010), pp. 86-89. 

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