HILDEGARD'S SEQUENCE IN HONOUR OF ST MAXIMUS
SISTER VICTORINE FENTON, OSB
ildegard of Bingen's sequence, 'Columba aspexit', is an interesting work both as music and as poetry. It is in the sixth mode with a range of a twelfth; however, it does not end on the finalis, fa, but on the dominant, do, which in this mode is the limit of the ambitus. The sixth mode emphasizes the do-mi-sol progression, and this with the last note on do, gives a tonal feeling to the sequence. Hildegard frequently lowers the seventh degree so the tonal feeling is not pervasive.
All of Hildegard's music resembles chant in many ways, yet it is highly individual. Her ranges are very wide, sometimes exceeding two octaves; and she loves large intervals. A wide skip is often followed by another in the same direction; something that is almost never found in chant. Hildegard's music is made up of a number of melodic patterns, like chant, but instead of assembling and reassembling these in a kind of patchwork quilt manner, centonization, as did the composers of chant, Hildegard uses the melodic patterns as frameworks on which she spins a melody. Example 1 shows just two of these frameworks and a few versions of what she has done with them.
Hildegard's eight sequences are the least elaborate of the songs. Unlike the typical sequence, they are not syllabic, lines differ in the number of syllables, even in the same pair. The melodic alterations within a pair are not merely to accomodate the different number of syllables but to underscore the meaning of the words.
In 'Columba aspexit', Hildegard achieved coherence and built momentum by the way each pair of lines opens. See Example 2: 1a-1b, a second; 2a-2b, a third spreading to the upper fifth; 3a-3b, a second recalling the first pair, but exploring the lower fifth; 4a-4b, another third which might be described as a filled-in fifth; 5 begins with an open fifth, a very exciting interval for the medieval ear.
Like all her sequences, this one has cadence rhyme, but each pair of endings balances the opening statement, either by repeating the opening interval (first pair) or by going in contrary motion to it, for example, Example 2 for verse 5.
The endings themselves were creatively written: in the first pair the last note is approached from the step below, a rather mild progression. In the second pair, it is approached from the third below, a little more exciting. In the third pair, it is approached from the step above and this and this preceded by the lower third. Thisprogression has more tension-release than the previous endings. The fourth pair harkens back to the third but rises to a fifth and there is slightly more movement toward the cadence. The last verse has the final note approached by the fourth above. This presents the utmost tension, especially since the fourth above is the actual finalis of the mode. After the final do is reached, Hildegard decorates it a bit where there is an example of leaps in the same direction.
There is plenty of text-painting in this sequence. In verse 1a, there is a definite downward movement on 'dove peered in' and 'balm rained down'. In 2a, an upward swing on 'tower', and in 2b a corresponding upward motion on the 'swift hart rang up' followed by 'pure water' running down. (See Example 3) Higher still, involving a change of clef, are the 'king's gardens' (3a) and a gentle undulating movement on 'suavissima'. In 4a, the word mons is emphasized not only by the melodic movement but also by the use of a quilisma. That word, after all, epitomizes the entire text, which has a rise-and-descent theme: the saint rising to the heights to be with God, and then returning to earth to minister to the people.
I am indebeted to Peter Dronke's explanation and translation of this sequence in The Medieval Lyric. He refers to 'Columba aspexit' as a cascade of Biblical images, images which are not directly about Maximus, but about the dual relationship of Maximus with God and with people. Dronke calls attention to the images of the dove and the sun in the first pair of lines. These symbolize the divine which enters the saint's cell, and also his soul, which is the paradise garden. The twofold imagery of the heavenly garden and the heavenly city continues throughout. Perfumes rising and waters flowing down, are also important images in the sequence. The perfumes symbolize the twofold relationship of the saint with God and with the people. Maximus aspires both to the kiss of Wisdom and also mediates for others below. As Dronke puts it:
He is an eagle whose wings are set alight by the divine sun, or a mountain goat that can scale the heights. But he is also an elephant who walks in the lowest places. He returns from the heights to share his joy with others. Wisdom, too, both played with God in the heights and delighted to be with the children of men. The upward movement is conveyed once more by the fragrance rising heavenwards from the altar; the return by the descent of heavenly light.Recordings
Private recording: Dr Martin Jenni and friends at the University of Iowa, 1978. Selections from the Ordo Virtutum are on the same tape.
The sequence is also found on Gothic Voices' 'Feather on the Breath of God'.
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