O Virgo Ac Diadema, Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179).
Cello – Christine Williams.
Arrangement, vocals, recorder, production and recording – Racheal Cogan.
This music was written by the Abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 17 September 1179) – almost 1,000 years ago. It is from the Symphonia Armoniae Celestium Revelationum, and these pieces are set to her own text. Hildegard was known to have had visions throughout her life and these formed a significant part of her body of work.
This music is different to read than most common modern notation – the staves here tend to have 4 lines (rather than the 5 we are more accustomed to) and the clefs move around, so you read it more as a linear pattern than actually looking at a note and knowing what it is. I hadn’t ever played or sung any of this kind of early vocal liturgical chant, so I began by listening to a lot of versions of this piece (particularly from the album Symphoniae by Sequentia). As I was working through the idiosyncrasies of reading the notation, I didn’t feel ready to learn it from the facsimile (as above), and instead chose a version published in James R. Briscoe’s Historical Anthology of Music by Women (see below). It’s more of a tidied up version with training wheels for reading early liturgical notation that preserves the four lines for a stave and all of those neumes; so I still had a sense of the original notation and ideas of phrasing to inform our interpretation:
I took my time learning a way around the notes, struggling with the Latin and, because I am me, feeling uncomfortable with the religiosity and lack of, I don’t know – humor, and, um, the sheer grandiosity and damn seriousness of the translation of the words. I tend to gravitate towards a more modern sentiment of humility in the grand scheme; Kings and Guilt and Races seem puny compared to the geological epochs that our planet has moved through, dinosaurs and all. (Oh crafty serpent of Eve, where would we have all been without you?) So, big breath – the text:
(Translation from the Latin by Clifford Johnson in the Historical Anthology of Music by Women)
O virgin, as well, the diadem of the crimson royal purple of the king who in your gate like as a breastplate
You, becoming verdant, bloomed through all the changes which Adam brought forth in every race of man.
Hail, hail, from your womb all life proceeded which Adam had stripped from his sons.
Oh flower, you were not to put forth from the dew, neither from the drops of rain, nor from the air which flowed from above, but the divine clarity brought you forth a most noble virgin.
O Virgin, God foresaw your flowering in the first day of his creatures. And from the word he made your golden matter.
O most noble virgin, oh how great it is, in his strength from the side of man God produced the form of woman, which he made a mirror of all to his adornment and an honour to all of his creatures.
For that, the heavenly sounds celebrate and all the earth wonders, O most laudable Mary, whom God has certainly loved.
O how certainly it is to be bewailed and lamented because the sorrow from the guilt through the craftiness of the serpent has flowed in women.
But now, a woman alone whom God has made mother of all, has expelled through her womb the disaster of ignorance and has manifested the full grief of her race.
But, O morning star, from your womb a new sun has exploded, banishing every guilt of Eve and has brought through you a greater blessing because Eve harmed man.
Whence, O Salvatrix, you have brought forward a new human light, gather together the limbs of your son to heavenly harmony.
My idea was to write an arrangement to perform with my friend cellist Christine Williams. Working out how to notate it so that it didn’t diminish the power of the music that has been left to us was challenge enough, I was also reluctant to bind the notes to a strict rhythm, but I had to work out an efficient way for us to learn the piece together. Then, we patiently rehearsed, working our way through the ideas. I’m sure that we both thought it would never work, but slowly the sounds came together and we started playing together as one in what was becoming a cohesive piece of music.
Just after recording this piece with Christine, I was walking through a big leafy park in the early summer and I started to hear it in my head a little differently: A door creaking open with a gust of wind taking us into another space from a very different time, a wooden floor creaking and a person’s footsteps leading us through. I love the idea of creating music spatially, surrounded by fragments of sounds from a particular time and space telling a story. But then, I then had to take a break from all of these ideas for a couple of months to make my own journey moving our home 3,600 kilometers from Calgary to Montreal packing, cleaning, driving, and crazy adventures. Finally after arriving in Montreal, as the cracked ceilings of our small rented apartment were being plastered and painted, I spent some time working through these additional ideas at the same time as unpacking, repairing, and cleaning up bits of plaster and flaky paint whilst moving furniture out of the way and back again. This is what I came up with for now. Put on some decent headphones and enjoy!
Thank you Christine for the time you spent with me working on this music, your beautiful playing, friendship and support; I already miss you.
Thank you Geri and Susanna for your comments and for listening!