Friday, March 31, 2023

O felix anima

Responsory for St. Disibod [Feast, July 8; Translation, Sept. 8] (R 470vb) Back to Table of Contents
by Hildegard of Bingen
R. O felix anima
cuius corpus
de terra
ortum est, quod tu
cum peregrinatione
huius mundi conculcasti:

R. Unde de divina racionalitate,
que te speculum suum fecit,
coronata es.

V. Spiritus sanctus etiam te
ut habitaculum suum

R. Unde de divina racionalitate,
que te speculum suum fecit,
coronata es.

Gloria Patri et Filio
et Spiritui sancto.
R. O happy soul,
whose body
from the earth
has sprung
and with this worldly pilgrimage
you’ve trod it down:

R. So with rationality divine—
which made you as its mirror—
you have been crowned.

V. The Holy Spirit, too,
has looked to you
to be its habitation.

R. So with rationality divine—
which made you as its mirror—
you have been crowned.

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

This responsory is one of two pieces for St. Disibod (the other is the antiphon, O beata infantia) that Hildegard likely composed later in her life, to round out her initial set of three compositions for the founder of the Disibodenberg. They do not appear in the earliest record of those three compositions, Hildegard’s letter of the early 1150’s (nr. 74r) to Kuno, the abbot of Disibodenberg (for more on that letter, see the commentary for O mirum admirandum); nor do they appear in the earlier Dendermonde manuscript of Hildegard’s music. It is thus likely that they date sometime after 1170, reflecting Hildegard’s renewed interest in the cult of St. Disibod, inspired by her composition of his saintly vita (for more on that text, see here). Indeed, both compositions crystallize elements found in Hildegard’s Life of St. Disibod, serving as musical syntheses of the prose text’s themes.

The first part of the responsory focuses on St. Disibod’s ascetic discipline of the flesh during his “worldly pilgrimage.” The concept of the blessed soul on pilgrimage in this world is, of course, an ancient image most famously articulated by St. Augustine of Hippo in The City of God. With St. Disibod, however, the metaphor is also a literal part of his life story: after his strict discipline as a bishop in his native Ireland proved too controversial for the people of his see, he was driven out, “and so, with a happy mind [leto animo] and for the sake of eternal life, he undertook the pilgrimage [peregrinationem] he had long desired” (Vita s. Dysibodi episcopi, ch. 12).[1]

The repetendum (refrain), meanwhile, moves into Disibod’s interior life with the key image of the mirror of divine rationality. This reflects Hildegard’s anthropological preoccupations in her later years, found in both her last work, the Liber divinorum operum, and in briefer form even in the Life of St. Disibod itself. After narrating the events of Disibod’s death near the end of the vita, she launches into an extended discussion of human rationality and its operation through the knowledge of good and evil (scientia boni et mali)—the hallmark of the human person made in the image and likeness of God (Vita s. Dysibodi episcopi, ch. 38). This “complete knowledge” (plena scientia) distinguishes humans from the rest of creation and enables them to act as God acts and as God made them to act (quoniam Deus eum, ut secundum ipsum operaretur, creauit). The human conscience (scientia), therefore, becomes the mirror in which we discern with a God-given rationality what it is we ought and ought not to do. The sinful person can be overwhelmed by the sensations of his flesh and give in to them; but as Hildegard continues:
[The] blessed person desires to do what he does not taste in the flesh, and he asks for help from the Holy Spirit in order to gaze upon the mirror of holiness [in speculum sanctitatis]. Just as a person ponders his face in a mirror, in which it really is not, and, as far as he can, changes what he sees there that is unworthy, so a blessed man through faith desires to do good deeds to the consternation of the devil and against his flesh. Because he does not do what the flesh presents to him and so through hard and strenuous battles conquers himself with his desires, he will possess the brightness that the fallen angels had. (...) As the good angels look upon the face of the Father with praise, so blessed men doing good deeds in the mirror of faith [in speculo fidei] gaze upon the face of God in faith and always stand with him through the hardest struggles. For God so constituted creatures that through them human beings bring their works to completion.
     —Vita s. Dysibodi episcopi, ch. 41
In this responsory, Disibod’s ascetic discipline of the body sets the conditions for his contemplative crowning as a mirror of the divine. Based on the text alone, we would be tempted to see a stark dualism here, with Hildegard denigrating the flesh in favor of the happy soul. But the music tells a different story. The composition reaches the octave e above the final only once, in the second line on the word corpus (“body”), before launching into its first long melisma in the third line on terra (“earth”). The soul (anima) and the body’s origin from the earth (terra) are also bound together by the shared final cadence of lines 1 and 3 (F-G-A-A-G-F-G-F-E), which appears again in a modified version in line 7 on rationalitate (“rationality”) and in its original form in line 8 on fecit (“made”). Rather than denigrating the body, Hildegard here recognizes its importance as the vessel for the soul’s exercise of rationality.

St. Disibod’s mirror, finally, is a mirror of contemplation, and this aligns him with another of Hildegard’s favorite saintly role-models, St. John the Evangelist. Her antiphon for St. John, O speculum columbe, extols him as “the mirror of the dove,” a phrase that appears again in verse 2a of O presul vere civitatis, Hildegard’s sequence for St. Disibod. The dove connects to the Holy Spirit’s habitation in the verse of the responsory above, emphasizing that the itinerant Irish bishop settled into contemplation of the divine in his hermitage on the slopes of the Disibodenberg. Additional parallels between Disibod and St. John can be found in the ordering of the Dendermonde manuscript, where Hildegard’s three original pieces for Disibod are placed alongside her compositions for St. John;[2] when the two later pieces were added to the set in the Riesencodex, the whole repertoire was also moved into a different section of the chant collection, devoted to bishops and confessors. Despite the different orderings of the two manuscripts, the thematic connections between St. Disibod and St. John remain.

Transcription and Music Notes
by Beverly Lomer

Mode: E
Range: C below the final to E an octave above
Setting: Syllabic, neumatic, melismatic

In this responsory, the setting is primarily neumatic and melismatic. Longer melismas occur on important words/phrases, such as de terra (“from the earth”) and intuebatur (“[the Holy Spirit] has looked”). This song displays quite a lot of repetition of melodic motives and compound neumes. Many of the phrases open with similar gestures.

The phrasing punctuation is fairly straightforward. Most phrases begin and end with either the final of the mode (E) or the secondary pitch, B (the fifth above the final). Hildegard moves to D on Unde, which begins the repetendum. This change sets it a bit apart.

Lines 4 and 5 of the transcription separate ortum est quod tu and cum peregrinatione, but they might also be considered as one long phrase with a breath, perhaps, at the end of line 4. We separated the phrases because cum begins with the same melodic fragment as appears in Line 2, and Hildegard typically (but not always) uses motivic repetition to signal the start of a new phrase. In this case, we have created a short followed by a long phrase, which might not be ideal, so performers might adjust either as one long phrase or to keep cum on line 4.

The last two lines of the piece are one phrase, but they are separated to avoid crowding the line. A tick barline has been inserted to indicate this.

Further Resources for O felix anima


[1] All quotes from this text have been adapted from 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). 
[2] Tova Leigh-Choate, William T. Flynn, and Margot E. Fassler, “Hildegard as Musical Hagiographer: Engelberg, Stiftsbibliothek MS. 103 and Her Songs for Saints Disibod and Ursula,” in A Companion to Hildegard of Bingen, ed. Beverly Mayne Kienzle et al. (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2014), pp. 193-220, esp. p. 202 and 207-208. 

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