Hildegard von Bingen: O frondens virga
The Roman Catholic definition of an antiphon is “liturgical music, chant melody and text sung before and after a psalm verse, originally by alternating choirs.” Hildegard von Bingen’s O frondens virga is a psalm antiphon that is sung by a choir. Often accompanied by viols and medieval harps, these chants were seen as hypnotic and ethereal. This work, alongside Bingen’s other work Laus Trinitati, are the only two works that appear just in the Dendermonde manuscript. Their omission from Bingen’s expanded collection Riesenkodex can be attributed to either human error, or her disdain for the works after they were put into circulation.
The text for O frondens virga speaks about earthly fertility and femininity. Mary is described as O frondens virga, which translates into O blooming branch. She stands tall on her nobility as the chant unfolds. Latin to English translation
O frondens virga / O blooming branch,
in tua nobilitate stans / you stand upright in your nobility,
sicut aurora procedit: / as breaks the dawn on high:
nunc gaude et letare / Rejoice now and be glad,
et nos debiles dignare / and deign to free us, frail and weakened,
a mala consuetudine liberare / from the wicked habits of our age;
atque manum tuam porrige / stretch forth your hand
ad erigendum nos. / to lift us up aright.
Sung in the D mode, the slow moving nature of O frondens virga is what gives it such a mysterious charm. The note D is used to outline nearly every phrase, which keeps the musical structure water tight for the singers. The note A is also used to start new phrases, which is also significant as it has a close relationship with D. These modal consistencies lets the music breathe and the atmospheres take over. Bingen emphasises certain words to represent Mary’s key characteristics and actions. For example ‘nobilitate’ (‘nobility’), ‘letare’ (‘glad’) and ‘manum’ (‘stretch’) are all highlighted by the pitch reaching the highest register in the piece. The atmosphere created in O frondens virga is often described as magical or even ethereal. The delicate voices are sewn together through Bingen’s clever polyphonic writing, alongside her atmospheric instrumental writing.
Composed some time in the 12th century, O frondens virga is an attractive choral work that pushes forward the important relationship between music and words.