Claiming a Space for St. Hildegard

St. Hildegard
Icon of St. Hildegard of Bingen, by the hand of the author

I don’t remember how old I was when I first learned about St. Hildegard of Bingen, but when I joined a Benedictine monastery descended from German roots, she became a fast friend. What a remarkable woman! A Renaissance woman of the Middle Ages, she continues to inspire. She was a visionary, theologian, poet, composer and singer, advisor to leaders of Church and state, foundress of two monastic communities, herbalist and healer, at least a supervisor of artistic illuminations, and generally a supporter of the dignity of women. After the longest canonization process in history, in 2012 she finally was officially declared a saint and then a doctor of the Church. Since the 1970s various groups have tried to claim her as their own, including second-wave feminists, New Age writers, and ecological advocates. Her music has been recorded in settings ranging from simple, clear Early Music chant performances, to rhythmic versions set against techno beats and synthesizers. 

St.Hildegard Statue
This statue of St. Hildegard stands in the cloister hall of Monastery Immaculate Conception, Ferdinand, Indiana

I feel a bit protective of St. Hildegard, as I don’t think it is fair to excise her of her original context. While a giant in so many ways, she was a medieval Catholic monastic woman, a Benedictine. When her colorful visionary imagery is unpacked, she is explaining basic Catholic systematic theology. The majority of her chants were written for use in the Divine Office and mass. Her commentary on the Rule of Benedict exudes a sense of moderation.

At the same time, as a contemporary Catholic monastic woman, also a Benedictine, I long to help her images and music live again, to make them a bit more accessible to people of today, particularly in liturgical contexts.

St. Hildegard Window
Window of St. Hildegard, Monastery Immaculate Conception, Ferdinand, Indiana

This is a somewhat challenging endeavor, as her music includes some of the most demanding chant I have ever sung, sometimes using the very bottom and very top of a voice with a pretty wide range. Her melodies include some memorable patterns, but also some complex movements. Musical phrasing has to be interpreted with attention to the play of text and meaning. Moreover, many of the pieces are long. A number were designed to be sung as responsories during Matins, the night office. These are not easily transplanted to liturgical settings more accessible to most people. They are in Latin, so making translations easily available is important. So, too, some of the poetic imagery may need to be clarified for those not familiar with its theological connections. While I have sung her music in recital situations several times, and once or twice as a Communion meditation piece, I would love to see it be reclaimed in other ways too. Perhaps the creative liturgist readers of PrayTell can give us some suggestions!

The recording below is of one of my favorite songs from St. Hildegard, “O Virtus Sapientiae.” It seems a fitting reflection for the week after Trinity Sunday.

Antiphon for Divine Wisdom (translation by Barbara Newman)

O energy of Wisdom, / you who circled circling, / encompassing all / in one path that possesses life, / having three wings, / of which one flies on high / and the second distils from the earth, / and the third flies everywhere. / Praise be to you, / O Wisdom.

New Traditions of Chant Workshop

Saint Meinrad and the National Pastoral Musicians are collaborating to offer a workshop, New Traditions of Chant, the evening of Sunday, February 21, 2021. Saint Meinrad chant scholar Br. John Glasenapp, OSB, will be hosting a conversation with Togolese monks, Br. Justin Ayanou and Cajetan Agouvi, on the liturgy and music of their home monastery, the Abbey of the Ascension (Dzogbégan, Togo).

More information and registration is available here.

Review: The Parish Book of Chant

The process of reviewing this book from the Church Music Association of America brought forth a mixture of feelings. It seemed like such a diminutive, if not marginal, task in the midst of the times we’re living through as a church, as a nation, and as a world. I had to chide myself several times and recalled the other occasions when I chastised people who downplayed any discussion about liturgy/music when there were issues that had been deemed bigger or more important. I’m quite sure that parish musicians right now are not focusing their energies on examining the role of chant in their congregations’ repertoire, how to go about introducing chant where it is not known, and so on. The prayer of the Church, however, remains central and crucial at every time, and so—even if filed away for a future day—we need to keep evaluating the resources we offer people for sung prayer.

The Parish Book of Chant in its first edition was issued after Benedict XVI’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum. Its expanded second edition (the subject of this review) was prompted by the 2010 translation of the Missale Romanum. This second edition now utilizes the ICEL translation of the Ordinary Form of the liturgy, whereas the first edition did not. The book is described on its title page as a “manual of Gregorian chant, and a liturgical resource for scholas and congregations.” It includes the order of both the Ordinary and Extraordinary forms, along with a completely Kyriale, as well as chants and hymns for occasional/seasonal use, with “literal English translations” included. Editor Richard Rice has included the foreword to the first edition in this book, as well as a new foreword.

A quick look at the table of contents reveals the breadth of music included in this book. Following orders of sung Mass for both forms of the rite, there are eighteen chant Mass settings, six settings of the Credo, nearly twenty pages of miscellaneous chant settings of various Mass parts, the three sequences, the Missa pro Defunctis (Extraordinary Form), followed by more than a hundred pages of hymns and chants for communion, general use, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the seasons of the liturgical year. The concluding section is devoted to the Gospel canticles and the Litany of Saints (in both forms), including the Latin names of all the saints listed in the Graduale Romanum.

Coming to the music section, you will see that the book uses the four-line staff and neumes for its notation. This section is truly admirable for the enormous amount of work it took, and the fine quality that was achieved overall. The musical section leads off with the sung order of Mass in the Ordinary Form, using the Missa Jubilate Deo along with, as mentioned, the 2011 ICEL text as its translation. Latin texts and translations for the four eucharistic prayers and the new dismissals added by Benedict XVI are included. Mass in the Extraordinary Form follows, providing English translations for each part, offering the Prayers after Low Mass as well.

The translations for the Extraordinary form (and throughout the rest of the book) use what would be commonly referred to as “archaic” English, in a Douay-Rheims/King James style, with “-eth” endings for verbs, Thou/Thee, and so on. I realize that a congregation would not use the book simultaneously for an Ordinary and Extraordinary form celebration, but the ICEL translation definitely felt like the outlier to me.

The section of general chants and hymns begins with the note that they are “suitable for any occasion when the Proper chant is not sung.” The editor makes clear in the foreword that this book understands the word “proper” to carry more of the sense of “mandatory” rather than being a contrasting term to Ordinary meaning fixed/unchanging. That sense is definitely echoed here.

The final section of the book is a “Guide to Singing Chant” of about twelve pages, which also incorporates a pronunciation guide. The editor makes it clear that this book follows the Solesmes approach to chant. An awareness of other/more recent work in chant study is mentioned, but for sources and method, Solesmes is what is used. Following a title index, there is a one-page order for Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.

It was the final section of guides to chant notation and Latin pronunciation that got me to wondering about the word “parish” in the book’s title. I’m not sure that even a brief Gregorian chant guide is something that congregants would need, use, or benefit from. (It may be that producing separate editions for congregation and music ministers was viewed as an unnecessary expense.) Even for music-reading congregants, these 300 pages of Gregorian neumes would be an alien environment, perhaps a bit overwhelming. Others, I know, would take the presentation as a visual sign of a return to a liturgical time and place they either fondly recall, or fervently hope to experience. To acquire and subsequently implement this book in parish liturgy—a task that most parish musicians will likely postpone to a later time—would definitely take a deep and enthusiastic commitment.

The Parish Book of Chant is available as a free preview PDF (used for this review) on the CMAA website, or in print either from CMAA or Paraclete Press. (Softcover, 350 pages, $22.00)

Praying with Chant Distance Learning Session

In case you’ve missed Fr. Anthony Ruff’s summer chant course, Saint Meinrad Archabbey is offering the opportunity for some at-home chant immersion planned in conjunction with the National Pastoral Musicians. Originally scheduled as a pre-conference session for the NPM national convention, Praying with Chant is being offered as an online distance learning session. Live videoconferences with Br. John Mark Falkenhain, Br. Joel Blaize, and Sr. Jeana Visel will be offered on Saturdays, June 13, 20, and 27. Pre-recorded presentations will be made available earlier each week. Registration is open now through June 12. Cost is $100. (To register only for the chant session, click ‘not a current member’ and go to the second page, where the last option at the bottom of the page is ‘register for pre-convention events in May and June only.’ From there you’ll be able to choose any of the pre-convention events).

Session 1 (Pre-recorded): A Chant Primer
Session 2 (Live): The Responsorial Psalm and Gospel Acclamation
Session 3 (Pre-Recorded): An Introduction to Modality and Psalm Tones
Session 4 (Live): Looking at the Exultet and the Pentecost Sequence
Session 5 (Pre-recorded): Chant and Lectio Divina
Session 6 (Live): A Look at the Introits for Advent and Christmas Night Mass

On-campus chant workshops will resume in late January, 2021.

11th Annual Winter Chant Conference at Saint Meinrad: January 2020

Registration is open for Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology’s  Winter Chant Conference, “Bringing to Life the Word of God in Song,” to be held at Saint Meinrad Archabbey in southern Indiana January 20-24, 2020. The workshop is designed for directors of parish liturgical music and singers in parish liturgies.

Attendees will learn and experience how chant is “sung speech,” and will gain skills to incorporate English and Latin chant into parish liturgies. Through the week, attendees will have the opportunity to participate in the liturgies of Saint Meinrad’s Benedictine monastic community, as well as to form and sing in a chant schola.

Topics to be addressed through the week include: 
– What is Chant and Why Sing It Today?
– Historical Development of Chant
– Types of Chant and How They are Used
– Modality and Modes
– Psalms, Psalm Tones, and Their Use in Liturgy
– Genres and Sources of Chant
– Teaching and Directing Chant
– Spiritual Preparation with the Sacred Word: Lectio Divina
– Composing a Chant Antiphon
– Singing in a Chant Schola

Staff will include Benedictines Br. John Mark Falkenhain, Sr. Jeana Visel, Br. Joel Blaize, Fr. Eugene Hensell, Fr. Tobias Colgan and Br. Basil Lumsden, along with Mr. Ray Henderson.

More information and registration are available at