Nature has long inspired composers, and as a result composers’ musics have been a sort of commentary on nature. Because of the unique ecological challenges we face in the 21st Century, thinking about nature has become a critical issue—our relationship with the natural world matters. This blog takes a critical view of the relationships between music and the natural world.
Western art music, that is, classical music, has a history beginning in the medieval period (also called the middle or dark ages) when European religious composers developed a notation system called neume. There was certainly music before medieval music, and even within the western tradition. Much of this music was considered art. It conveyed imaginative, technical, emotional, and social ends. Art musics can be understood as threefold—composers intend particular ends; performers intend particular ends; and listeners intend particular ends. Philosopher Edmund Husserl described intentionality as thought directed toward an object. Much can be understood about musics by analyzing those who compose, those who perform, and those who listen to certain musical traditions.
The earliest poem in the west, written in ancient Greece, the Iliad was most certainly sung. This music was not notated, and music scholars cannot be certain how any music composed prior to the medieval period sounded. Medieval composers used plainchant, monophonic melody (that is, one pitch at a time, unaccompanied, without any harmony or countermelodies), in religious liturgies. Early western art music, then, cannot be separated from the Catholic religious rituals from which it develops. Musics happen within cultural contexts. Rebab music occurs within Bedouin culture; gamelan ensembles emerge in Javanese and Balinese cultures; the maso bwikam (deer songs) exist in Yaqui or Yoeme culture. And western art music is part of western culture, which includes writing, visual arts, theatre, and other cultural expressions. But what is western culture? In the medieval period at least, western culture was Catholic. Even today, many medieval plainchants continue to be employed in Masses—the Mass being a central liturgical service, especially for Catholic and Anglican churches.
Let’s begin with a medieval composer, the nun and Catholic saint, Hildegard of Bingen.
Image link: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/69/Hildegard_of_bingen_and_nuns.jpg
O Frondens Virga, Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), performed by Chanticleer
Another version—ACDA High School Women’s Choir, Dallas, Texas
Lyrics (from the International Society of Hildegard von Bingen Studies), link: http://www.hildegard-society.org/2014/10/o-frondens-virga-antiphon.html
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.
Latin collated from the transcription of Beverly Lomer and the edition of Barbara Newman; translation by Nathaniel M. Campbell.
An antiphon is a short chant used in Christian rituals such as the Mass, or Liturgy of the Hours. However, Marian antiphons (a type of hymn to Mary) are not considered true antiphons, as they’re not generally associated with a specific psalm verse.
According to the Hildegard Society,
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.” The musical rhetoric is not as powerful in this work. Melodic motives are shared on the words virga, sicut [aurora] and ad erigendum. The high registral pitch occurs on nobilitate, letare and manum. These linkages serve to highlight Mary’s key attributes and actions.
Questions for consideration:
- What is the relationship to the ideas of “Western” and Christian religion?
- How might Hildegard’s music and ideas challenge Western patriarchy?
- How do modern performers and arrangers make single-line plainchant interesting to modern listeners, who expect harmony and countermelodies?