Advent Calendar Day 21 – O Frondens Virga (Hildegard of Bingen)

Something a bit different today, because if your weekend is looking anything like mine (one choir rehearsal, two lots of carolling, and two family Christmas get-togethers), you probably need something soothing and restful to cope with the stress.  Also, as we get closer to Christmas, and those very stylised, traditional services on Christmas Eve with candles and the same readings and carols really in almost every church around the globe, year after year, I always find myself with an image in my head of reaching back to hold hands in a long chain of people throughout the centuries, who have sat through services very much like these, listening to these same readings (and even some of the same hymns) for nearly 2,000 years.

(One of the things I love most about candlelit services is that this is the only time one really gets a sense of what churches must have looked like in the days before electricity and gas lighting, with only natural light and candles to light the space.  Though in Australia, of course, very few of our churches pre-date some sort of artificial lighting…)

I don’t have any music from the first few centuries AD that I can share with you, alas.  While the text of Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence goes back to 275 CE or earlier, the best known tune is 17th century, and I can’t find an earlier version. The Latin version of Of the Father’s Love Begotten dates to 413 CE as plainchant, but nobody seems willing to record it without embellishment.

Which leads me, inevitably, to the 12th century, and Hildegard of Bingen.  I have a great fondness for Hildegard, who, in addition to being a composer of numerous musical works, was an accomplished herbalist, poet and playwright, and was not shy about writing letters to the Kings and Popes of her day telling them where they were going wrong.  (I suspect that it is no coincidence that a lot of rules were brought in after her death restricting the movement and activities of cloistered women.  Nobody was game to cross her while she was alive, but they weren’t going to stand for any more of that once she was gone, thank you.) Hildegard’s convent at Eibingen is also very close to the home of one of my dearest friends (who tells me that there were always a *lot* of Hildegards in her class at school).

O Frondens Virga is an antiphon to the Virgin Mary, and the lyrics translate as:

O branch, coming into leaf, standing upright in your nobility as dawn advances: rejoice now and be glad and deign to free us, helpless and weak, from the evil habits of our age; and stretch out your hand to lift us upright.

The leafy and fertile imagery is very Hildegard, and Kathelijne Van Laethem’s voice has a pure clarity that suits the music perfectly.

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