Write your personal observations on the piece, using at least 2 musical elements to describe your feelings and thoughts about the music

Chapter 1 1Hildegard von Bingen  Play of Virtues (excerpt)

Composed: ca. 1150

Plainchant consists of a single melodic line sung without accompaniment of any kind. Hildegard von Bingen’s ​Play of Virtues uses plainchant to enhance the emotional impact of a morality play that pits the forces of good (the Virtues) against evil (Satan). Each of the 16 Virtues—Charity, Obedience, Chastity, Humility, Victory, and so on—is sung by a different singer.

Learning Objectives

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1.1Discuss the origins and uses of plainchant.

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1.2Compare Hildegard’s Play of Virtues with the morality plays of today.

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1.3Listen for the monophonic texture of chant.

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1.4Characterize the melodic contour of chant.

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1.5Explain how syllabic and melismatic passages function.

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1.6Listen for the relatively free rhythms of the melodies in Play of Virtues.

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1.7Describe Hildegard’s life as a composer and explain how she defended the use of music in the church.

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Music exerts a powerful pull on the human spirit, and medieval composers put this power to good use. Hildegard von Bingen recognized that the words of her Play of Virtues (Ordo virtutum), while moving in their own right, could be made even more expressive when set to music.

Hildegard was the abbess—director—of an abbey of nuns in what is now western Germany. Her Play of Virtues consists of a series of confrontations between Satan and 16 Virtues. Each of the Virtues is personified by a different singer, with Humility portrayed as the “Queen of Virtues.” When the Virtues sing together as a single chorus, they all sing exactly the same melody. Satan, however, never sings at all; he simply shouts his lines. In the medieval period, music was widely perceived as a divine gift of heaven, and it seems only fitting that the devil should have no music at all. The contrast between the spoken part of Satan and the sung part of the Virtues is immediate and striking.

In setting this morality play to music, Hildegard was building on a long tradition of liturgicalplainchant, the music used in the daily services of the church. This repertory of chant had developed slowly over many centuries. It grew out of the chants of Jewish services of worship, particularly the melodic recitation of the Psalms. Over time, many of the texts of the Christian liturgy were set to music by a series of anonymous composers, most of whom were presumably monks and priests. The melodies were transmitted orally and not put in writing until they already had been circulating for many centuries. Hildegard’s style of chant is similar to the more florid kinds of plainchant found in the services of worship. The most important service of worship—the Mass—was itself a ritual reenactment of Christ’s Last Supper with his disciples, with the celebrant priest (a representative of Christ) distributing bread and wine to his followers (see “Historical Context: The Mass,” Chapter 10). The idea of a bodily reenactment of past events gradually extended to readings from scripture as well: Dramatized performances of such events as the two Marys finding the empty tomb of Christ on Easter morning became increasingly common from the eleventh century onward. Hildegard’s setting of a play about the struggle for an innocent soul extends this practice.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

The Morality Play

How do we learn the difference between good and evil, and how do we learn to choose between them? In the Middle Ages, morality plays like Hildegard von Bingen’s Play of Virtues offered a way of dramatizing such questions literally. But morality plays did not end with the Middle Ages. Popular works today like the Star WarsHarry Potter, and Lord of the Rings series are built on the same basic plot outline: An innocent figure struggles between the forces of good and evil.

Work Evil Innocent Soul Good
Hildegard, Play of Virtues Satan The Soul, Penitent The Virtues
Tolkien, Lord of the Rings Sauron Frodo Gandalf
Lucas, Star Wars Darth Vader Luke Skywalker Jedi knights
Rowling, Harry Potter Voldemort Harry Potter Dumbledore

In each case, the embodiment of evil was once good: Sauron began as a good spirit, Darth Vader was once a Jedi knight, Voldemort was originally an innocent boy named Tom Marvolo Riddle, and Satan himself was a fallen angel.

Music plays a powerful role in all of these more recent dramas, and especially in their film adaptations. Think, for example, of the difference in sound between the darkness of Darth Vader’s music and the stirring march that symbolizes the Jedi knights. These aural cues reinforce the essence of the good and evil characters.

In a scene from Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Darth Vader (David Prowse) carry out the battle between good and evil.

 

 

Exploring Play of Virtues

First, listen to an excerpt from Hildegard von Bingen’s Play of Virtues, using the following prompts as a guide. Then read the discussion of how the elements of music operate in this piece.

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Texture: Listen for the sound of a single voice, or multiple voices singing the same music in unison: this is monophonic texture.

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Melody: Listen for occasional leaps in the otherwise smooth and flowing melodies. Listen, too, for the cadences—brief resting points—-throughout.

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Word–Music Relationships: Note that most characters sing their lines, but one speaks (or shouts) his. Notice how clearly the singers project the Latin words, mostly with one note per syllable, but occasionally with many notes drawn out over a single syllable.

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Rhythm: Listen also for the climax of the drama, when the pitches move into a very high range. Listen to the way the rhythm is free for the most part, reflecting the irregular rhythms of the words being sung.

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♫ Listen to This First

Hildegard von Bingen, Play of Virtues (excerpt)

The Clarity of Monophonic Texture

The monophonic texture of this music—whether sung by one singer or by a group of singers in unison—allows the performers to project the text with great clarity.

The earliest preserved music from the Middle Ages was monophonic. In the church, this repertory came to be known as plainchant because of the simplicity of its texture. (Later, it would also be called Gregorian chant on the grounds that Pope Gregory I was said to have written the bulk of it in the late sixth century.) Plainchant fulfilled its function perfectly: It projected its text—the main focus of attention for worshippers—with wonderful clarity and a melodic beauty that enhanced the meaning of the words. It was particularly well suited for performance in the large, resonant spaces of medieval churches. The beauty of the melodies and words together, echoing off the stone walls, must have made an enormous impact on worshippers.

A 13th-century plainchant manuscript. The elaborate initial for the letter “A” at the beginning shows Saint Gregory transcribing the melodies whispered into his ear by the dove, who represents the Holy Spirit.

Medieval Melody

Hildegard’s flowing melodies move primarily by step (conjunct motion), but the occasional leaps (disjunct motion) provide variety and give each phrase of text a clear profile. Many of the melodic phrases begin with a leap upward and then descend gradually through a series of steps, ending on the same note with which the phrase began. This kind of melodic contour is typical of plainchant in general and is always related to the structure of the text being sung: a sentence of text almost invariably ends with a musical resting point known as a cadence.

Here is the opening of our excerpt from Play of Virtues, represented in modern notation. Each melodic phrase starts and ends on D, rising and then falling to a cadence.

Animated Notation

Medieval Melody

 

What has sometimes been described as the “otherworldly” sound of plainchant—the quality that makes plainchant sound different from other kinds of music—is due in part to the scales on which these melodies are based. Whereas today we have only two basic kinds of scales (corresponding to the major and minor modes), medieval composers had four additional modes, each of which uses a sequence of whole steps and half steps different from the pattern found in the standard scales of today. The easiest way to imagine (and hear) the full range of medieval modes is to play a series of notes upward on the piano using only the white keys starting and ending on D, then another series on E, then another on F, and finally another on G. Each of these scales—modes—sounds slightly different from the others, and each also sounds different from the standard major and minor modes of today. (The major mode can be heard on the white keys from C to C, and the minor mode on the white keys from A to A.) In the Middle Ages, each of these scales (modes) was given its own Greek name, based on the mistaken belief that these corresponded to the modes of ancient Greek music. The medieval modes are Dorian (on D), Phrygian (on E), Lydian (on F), Mixolydian (on G), Aeolian (on A), and Ionian (on C). The opening of this particular excerpt from Hildegard’s Play of Virtues is based on the Dorian mode, beginning and cadencing on the note D.

Projecting Words through Music

A composer has two basic choices in setting words to music: he or she can set each syllable to a single note or the composer can set each syllable to multiple notes. The first style—one note per syllable—is called syllabic, and it ensures that the words will be heard with special clarity. The second style—more than one note per syllable—is called melismatic. A melisma is a syllable sung to many notes. This kind of setting provides variety and emphasizes key words in a text, such as the word regina (“queen”) in this example.

Animated Notation

Projecting Words through Music

A treble-clef staff shows the notes for a small section of a plainchant.

An entirely melismatic setting might make it difficult for listeners to understand every word, whereas an entirely syllabic setting might not provide sufficient musical variety. By mixing syllabic and melismatic settings, Hildegard provides musical variety, even while providing for a clear projection of the text.

Note, too, how certain passages are sung in a very high register, or range. When Satan has been bound—the climactic moment of the drama (3:24 in the Listening Guide)—Victory sings in an extremely high register. The effect is thrilling.

Free Rhythm

No one is absolutely certain exactly how plainchant was performed. There are two general approaches, free or measured. The performance here presents the music in a relatively free rhythm, with the individual notes lengthened or shortened according to the length of the syllables in the words being sung. A measured performance would adhere to a consistent meter, such as duple meter (1-2-3-4 | 1-2-3-4 | etc.).

 

Hildegard von Bingen and Her Defense of Music

Hildegard von Bingen: Visions through Music

We can securely attribute more compositions to Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179) than to any other musician, male or female, who worked before the early fourteenth century. In spite of her impressive output, Hildegard did not consider herself a professional composer or musician. Born into a noble family in what is now western Germany, she entered a Benedictine convent at the age of 7 and committed herself to a life in the church when she was 16. In her early 30s, she began to experience visions and revelations, which she recorded in a series of books. She considered herself a channel through which the Holy Spirit transmitted its message to humankind, sometimes in the form of prose, sometimes in the form of poetry, sometimes in the form of poetry with music. Hildegard was the first woman to receive explicit permission from a pope to write on theology. She also wrote on such diverse subjects as medicine, plants, and the lives of the saints, all while directing the life of a thriving convent near Bingen, a city on the Rhine in present-day Germany. Like many medieval persons, she took her name (“of Bingen”) from her place of residence.

Hildegard von Bingen, shown in a contemporary manuscript. She looks heavenward for inspiration as she records what she called her “visions,” which included both words and music.

The Composer Speaks: Hildegard Defends the Practice of Music

Over 850 years ago, Hildegard von Bingen was embroiled in a debate that continues today: What is the impact of music on the human mind and spirit? Does it support the religious experience, or does it serve as a sensual distraction from religion? To the present day, some religions embrace music, while some limit or even shun it.

Hildegard landed in the center of this controversy when church authorities forbade her nuns from singing in church; they were only allowed to speak the words of the services. The authorities wanted to punish Hildegard because she was alleged to have allowed excommunicated individuals—barred from receiving Communion because of a grave offense against the church—to be buried on the consecrated ground of her convent’s cemetery. In a lengthy letter to the church authorities, Hildegard eloquently defended the practice of music. Church officials eventually relented and allowed Hildegard’s convent to resume its singing.

“In obedience to you we have until now given up the singing of the Divine Office, celebrating it only by quiet reading—and I heard a voice coming from the living light, telling of those various kinds of praise concerning which David speaks in the Psalms: ‘Praise him with the sound of the trumpet, praise him with the psaltery and the cithara [plucked string instruments], praise him with the tympanum and the chorus, praise him with strings and the organ, praise him with the well-sounding cymbals, praise him with the cymbals of jubilation. Let every spirit praise the Lord’ [Psalm 150: 3–6]. In these words we are taught about inward concerns by external objects, how according to the makeup of material things (the properties of musical instruments) we ought best to convert and to refashion the workings of our interior man to the praise of the Creator. . . .

Thus it is just that God be praised in everything. And since man sighs and moans with considerable frequency upon hearing some song, as he recalls in his soul the quality of celestial harmony, the prophet David, considering with understanding the nature of what is spiritual (because the soul is harmonious) exhorts us in the psalm, ‘Let us confess the Lord on the cithara, let us play to him on the psaltery of ten strings’ [Psalm 32:1], intending that the cithara, which sounds from below, pertains to the discipline of the body; that the psaltery, which sounds from above, pertains to the striving of the spirit; and that the ten strings refer to the contemplation of the Law. Thus they who without the weight of sure reason impose silence upon a church in the matter of songs in praise of God, and thereby unjustly deprive God of the honor of his praise on earth, will be deprived themselves of the participation in the angelic praises heard in Heaven, unless they make amends by true regret and humble penitence.”

 

Expand, Connect, and Review: Play of Virtues

Expand Your Playlist

Hildegard von Bingen

Nuns and monks in Hildegard’s time attended church services not just once a week, or even once a day, but usually nine times a day. Hildegard wrote many chants for these services of worship. Here are some examples:

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“Lord, Have Mercy” (Kyrie eleison) is one of five sections of the Mass, the ritual reenactment of Christ’s Last Supper with his disciples. Hildegard von Bingen: Heavenly Revelations. Oxford Camerata, Naxos.

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“O Blessed Infancy” (O beata infantia) is an antiphon, a short piece sung before and after a psalm is sung in church. The Complete Hildegard von Bingen, Volume Three: O Nobilissima Viriditas. Celestial Harmonies B00005.

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“Honor Be to the Holy Spirit” (Spiritui sancto honor sit) is a responsory, a type of chant sung after the reading of scriptures in church. This type of chant takes its name from the fact that a chorus of singers responds to the singing of a soloist. Hildegard von Bingen: 11,000 Virgins. Anonymous 4. Harmonia Mundi Fr. B0000B003O.

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“Hail, Generous One” (Ave generosa) is a hymn, a devotional chant to a freely composed text, often with many strophes or stanzas. Hildegard von Bingen: Heavenly Revelations.Oxford Camerata, Naxos.

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Chant

Christianity is only one of many faiths that use monophonic chants in sacred rituals. Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, Native American (see Chapter 2), and other traditions employ some form of chanting.

Buddhist Chant

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Tibetan Mantras and Chants. Buddhist Monks of Maitri Vihar. Sounds of the World B00000IXHK. A selection of Buddhist chants from a contemporary Tibetan monastery.

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Christian Chant

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Chant. The Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos. Angel B000002. A selection of different types of plainchant sung in the Catholic Church. This recording became a triple-platinum album when it was released on CD in the mid-1990s, selling more than 3 million copies in the United States alone.

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Hindu Chant

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Sacred Hindu Chants and Mantras. Retro Music B000BS6XYS. A wide range of meditative Hindu chants.

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Islamic Chant

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Music of Islam, Vol. 10: Qur’an Recitation. Celestial Harmonies B0000007Z5. Selections from the Qur’an.

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Jewish Chant

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Chants Mystique: Hidden Treasures of a Living Tradition. Musical Heritage Society 514284Y. A wide range of chants from various branches of Judaism.

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Connect Your Playlist

Monophony

Ed Sheeran, ”I See Fire” (2015). This song begins with a monophonic verse before adding additional voices and instruments later.

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