Page 11 - Church Music Quarterly June 2019
P. 11

Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), long celebrated as a saint but only officially recognized as such in 2012 by Pope Benedict, was a nun, a founder
of two convents at Rupertsberg and Eibingen on the Rhine, a visionary, a writer, and most importantly for church musicians, a composer. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Hildegard’s music has been heard most often in concert settings rather than liturgically in church services, but her music was composed in traditional liturgical genres for traditional liturgical occasions and could be performed more frequently that way today.
The liturgical context for her plainchant is not surprising given her long status as a Benedictine nun. Hildegard was enclosed at the Abbey of Disibodenberg on 1 November 1112, along with another girl her age, the younger Jutta, and their spiritual mother, the elder Jutta of Sponheim; by the time Hildegard died as an octogenarian in 1179, she would have sung the liturgy of the Divine Office for almost seven decades. The year before she died, Hildegard articulated in
a letter just how important the Divine Office was
for the spiritual life of her community. As we learn from the letter, the nuns at Rupertsberg had been forbidden from singing the Office by prelates in Mainz, because of Hildegard’s refusal to exhume
the body of a nobleman buried in the convent’s cemetery; the prelates insisted that the man was
an ex-communicant and so should not be buried
on convent land while Hildegard insisted that he
had confessed to his priest and was in communion with the church at the time of his death. In her letter to the prelates insisting that they remove the sanction, Hildegard explained the necessity of performing the Divine Office and the dire consequences that will befall those who have forbidden it:
Consider, too, that just as the body of Jesus Christ was born of the purity of the Virgin Mary through the operation of the Holy Spirit so, too, the canticle of praise, reflecting celestial harmony,
is rooted in the Church through the Holy Spirit. The body is the vestment of the spirit, which has a living voice, and so it is proper for the body, in harmony with the soul, to use its voice to sing praises to God. ...
Therefore, those who, without just cause, impose silence on a church and prohibit the singing of God’s praises and those who have on earth unjustly despoiled God of his honour and glory will lose their place among the chorus of angels, unless they have amended their lives through true penitence and humble restitution.
Her threat is not subtle: either remove the sanction or spend eternity in hell.
Hildegard’s devotion to the sung practice of the liturgy went beyond her daily participation, and extended to adding compositionally to the plainchant repertory through her own poetic texts and music. Most of her plainchant falls within the standard medieval liturgical genres of antiphons, responsories, hymns and sequences, although she was creative in her application of the hymn and sequence structure, employing variation rather than strict melodic repetition. She also wrote a Kyrie, a Marian Alleluia with a verse, and three chants referred to somewhat ambiguously as symphonia (after rubrics that appear for two of them in the musical manuscripts), as well as a substantial liturgical drama, the Ordo virtutum. While her Kyrie could be performed for any Mass
or communion service, the rest of her plainchant is designated for specific saints (such as St Rupert or St Ursula), for regular liturgical feasts (Trinity Sunday and the Dedication of a Church), or for groups of saints following standard common of saints designations: for virgins, for widows, for apostles, for martyrs and for confessors.
In a church setting today, a choir (and/or a congregation) could sing Hildegard’s Kyrie on any Sunday of the year and could also follow the practice of the modern Hildegard Abbey in Eibingen and sing

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