Antiphon by Hildegard, 8 March 2015

Illumination from the ‘Liber Scivias’, Hildegard receiving a vision and dictating to her scribe and secretary.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179) shines as a beacon from the past, standing for the validity of a feminine voice and interpretation in a world where men wrote the rules and the history.

Unlike many, Hildegard achieved a degree of recognition in her own times, and even more unusually left a significant body of work in thought, art, theology, visions and music that still inspires across the centuries.

One of the first posts in this blog was occasioned by Hildegard’s saints’ day on 17 September 2013, the anniversary of her death. Accompanied by hurdy-gurdy and percussion, women and girls sang her Spiritui sancto from the story of Ursula and the 11,000 virgins. We have also enjoyed O rubor sanguini in years gone by.

This week as International Women’s Day approaches we turn to one of her poems used as an antiphon for the set psalm, rather than the psalm itself (Psalm 19):

O frondens virga,
in tua nobilitate stans
sicut aurora procedit:
nunc gaude et letare
et nos debiles dignare
a mala consuetudine liberare
atque manum tuam porrige
ad erigendum nos.
O blooming branch,
you stand upright in your nobility,
as breaks the dawn on high:
Rejoice now and be glad,
and deign to free us, frail and weakened,
from the wicked habits of our age;
stretch forth your hand
to lift us up aright.

Whatever wicked habits of the age she had in mind, ours are probably no less grievous. Hildegard’s prayer remains valid. One commentator has written:

‘O frondens virga’ recalls the elemental association of the divine feminine with earthly fertility. Mary is addressed as “O blooming branch,” and she is described as standing in her nobility. The image of dawn and its radiance is also invoked. As in ‘Cum erubuerint’, Mary’s salvific actions take on a hint of independent agency: “deign to set us frail ones free” and “stretch out your hand to lift us up.”

– N M Campbell, Hildegard of Bingen Society

Irrespective of various viewpoints on Marian intercession, Hildegard’s inspirational value is undeniable. Gwenda will lead us in a reflection on the place of influential women in our lives and faith.

Manuscript of Hildegard chant,
Manuscript of Hildegard chant, click to enlarge.


Exactly how this antiphon would have been performed in the 12th century is a matter for speculation. It would have been written in neumes as shown in the manuscript at left, accessed on one of the many web resources available on Hildegard.

These dots and dashes indicate the pitch of the notes but not the length or duration, which probably depended on the flow of the text and local practices of the nunnery or monastery in which they were taught and sung.

In any case, length and complexity preclude the performance of the full work with any pretence of authenticity and accuracy. We therefore hear extracts transcribed into modern musical notation, adapted for ease of learning and interpretation.

O Frondens extract

So it won’t necessarily sound quite like this youtube clip> — but it’s recognisable and nice, and shows that Hildegard’s creativity is fruitful soil for modern interpretation. The spirit of Hildegard’s feather is more important than literal detail.Feather

The feather flew, not because of anything in itself but because the air bore it along. Thus I am a feather on the breath of God.

– Hildegard of Bingen

Our women and girls gather for this rendition of the lilting poetry and chant. We are blessed that Talitha will again accompany the women’s voices on her hurdy-gurdy, a mechanical violin-like instrument which evolved before the time of Hildegard and was often used to support the monophonic melody of those times.

Historically informed, constantly relevant.More detail  Continue reading “Antiphon by Hildegard, 8 March 2015”

Psalm 105, 27 July 14

Psalm 105 from the St Albans Psalter, 12th century. Image: Wikimedia commons

Psalm 105 is a song of praise, as indeed are 106 and 107 that follow. The opening lines sound familiar, as such phrases occur throughout the Bible:

Confitemini Domino et invocate nomen ejus

Give glory to the Lord, and call upon his name

The next verse narrows the focus to set the theme as historical narrative, evidence that has provided confidence for such praise:

Annuntiate inter gentes opera ejus

Declare God’s deeds among the peoples.

Perhaps this is why the lectionary gives us the opportunity to revisit this psalm several times in coming weeks, with slightly differing verse selections. It recurs on 10 and 31 August, then on 21 September. This provides an opportunity for continuity, using the same style and response for all four appearances of this psalm.


The illustration from the  St Alban’s psalter above is in Latin (click on all photos to enlarge). Why the quotes in Latin this week, you ask? There’s a beautiful five-part setting of Psalm 105 in that language by the towering Roland de Lassus (Orlando di Lasso, c.1530 – 94) who, together with Palestrina in Italy, Byrd in England and Victoria in Spain, was one of the pillars of Late Renaissance music – see previous Crystal Ball post.

Works written for five voices are not everyday fare around South Woden; it is beautiful but demanding music. However, the Psalm Team has assembled a small group of experienced singers to present this centuries-old musical gem for your edification on 10 August.

Regrettably, these motets are rarely heard in Canberra, so that presentation on 10 August will be all the richer – note the date now! (It’s also a commissioning service for new Councillors). A separate post on the subject of this wonderful composer will follow soon.

A foretaste

I’m getting ahead of myself. This week, tossing the Renaissance ball into the ring, we start just with a small quote from the Lassus work as the response. And why not? — let’s sing it in Latin. The translation (above) will appear in the order of service: Ps105 Response


Gregorian chant was widely used during mediaeval and renaissance times. In step with the style of the day of Lassus, we shall use one of these chants for the verses, on this occasion Tone VIII which looks like this:

Psalm tone VIII

Originating over a thousand years ago and thus before the advent of polyphony, such tones were sung in unison. We observe that ancient practice for the forthcoming sequence of readings of Psalm 105.

A season of history Words are important

Thus we dip into history in a big way – Latin, Lassus and friend Greg from the 16th century. It’s not without precedent even in South Woden; we used this very chant last year to accompany an inspiring work by Hildegard. It’s worth re-reading the post for the psalm of the day here>.

It is also the fourth Sunday this week, so your ever-faithful men’s group await to lead you in this blast from the past. With some difficulty we have resisted the urge to enter stage right in long cloaks and dark cowls.

Seriously, though, the beauty and inspiration of Gregorian chant have been recognised over the centuries. The tones were designed to allow clarity of the words in the vast spaces of cathedrals and monasteries with their reverberant acoustics. Sung by voices in unison they have their own special atmospherics. Contact me if you want to be in it. Continue reading “Psalm 105, 27 July 14”

Mystery mediaeval music

Quiz of the Season. 

Thank you ladies and girls for the rendition of the Magnificat today. So, over half-way through Advent and just when you thought it was safe to open the mail, here’s a twister.

What is this early chant all about?

(I won’t ask if you can sing it)

Reno erat Rudolpho

Of course, after our Lenten chants you are all expert at reading neumes and square notation on this mediaeval four-line staff.

But just in case you do not sing this little number in the shower, and being a very helpful fellow, I now provide a series of (admittedly fairly useless) hints:

First, here’s the full text in case you can’t read it:

Reno erat Rudolphus / Nasum rubrum habebat;
Si quando hunc videbas, Hunc candere tu dicas.

Omnes tarandri alii / Semper hunc deridebant;
Cum misero Rudolpho / In ludis non ludebant.

V. Sanctus Nicholas dixit / Nocte nebulae,
“Rudolphe, naso claro / Nonne carum tu duces?”

Tum renores clamabant, / “Rudolphe, delectus es?
Cum naso rubro claro / Historia descendes!”

Reno illuminatedNext, you can listen to the music here>.  As experienced chanters by now, you will also be able to tell me what style of music this is.

Finally, it’s about a traditional Christmas theme, if you hadn’t guessed.

Enter your answer here, and say what style of music (or make a comment):

Hurry, only one more singing Sunday before Christmas.  Send in your answer quickly.

AFTER you have submitted your answer … OK or if you have already asked a teenager and you really give up (spoiler alert) read on …

Continue reading “Mystery mediaeval music”