Saturday, December 26, 2009


Reflections on the meaning of "Hodie" at Christmastime, what it says about the role of Mary as the mother of God, and the context it had in my recital, Saints and Sirens: Women through Music History.

Hodie Christus natus est: hodie salvator apparuit:
Hodie in terra canunt angeli, laetantur archangeli:
Hodie exultant justi, dicentes: gloria in excelsis Deo: Alleluia.

Today Christ is born: Today the Saviour appeared:
Today on Earth the Angels sing, Archangels rejoice:
Today the righteous rejoice, saying: Glory to God in the highest: Alleluia.

These words have been sung at Christmas for as long as history has recorded the celebration of the day. Gregorian chant, a traditional carol, A Ceremony of Carols, and an entire cantatabears the name and announcement of "Hodie." From simple chants and hymns to works by such esteemed composers as Palestrina, Sweelinck, Britten, and Vaughan Williams, the idea of "Hodie" has been strongly associated with Christmas and celebrating the birth of Christ, seen throughout history in many musical representations and forms. Often, the original Gregorian chant is quoted or used as the basis for newer or polyphonic versions, the root from which newer branches stem.

Hildegard also honored the significance of the Christ Child born of Mary, but emphasized Mary's role in the incarnation and what it meant: the reversal of original sin, the redemption of Eve, the dawn of new life (in the role Jesus came to serve, to die and rise again) flowering in the womb of the Virgin.

Hodie aperuit nobis clausa porta
quod serpens in muliere suffocavit,
Unde lucet in aurora
flos de Virgine Maria.
Today opens for us
the door that had been closed
with which the serpent had stifled the first woman.
Hence, the flower of the Virgin Mary
shines forth in the dawn.

This original chant by Hildegard von Bingen was the first thing heard in my recital. The room was dark, with the only light coming from the open doors, leading to the foyer of the recital hall. This foyer, with its hard tiled floor and glass doors leading outside into the sunlight, provided a perfect reverberant space from which to begin my concert. With no visible origins, the sound of this chant, using the hallway's convincing imitation of a cathedral acoustic, wafted in with the sunlight to the listeners in the darkened auditorium, giving birth to this brain-child of mine that had been growing in thought for more than a year. This recital project was about the liberation of women's music, the discovery and exploration of who these women were who wrote and inspired so much beauty in the musical art form. Hildegard was the perfect way to both begin and end such an exploration, as she was such an extraordinary strong female figure who lived, taught, and thrived in her work and the proliferation of a unique sacred message (from a female perspective) during a time that did not encourage such an anomaly.

The message of "Today" had a very significant meaning, not just in its historical context relating to Christ and His Mother, but to the mystery and beauty of the past being revealed "now," at the very moment of my recital. "Nunc" (the Latin of "now"), was the word used to begin this same chant in the Reisenkodex manuscript, replacing the "Hodie" so that it would be usable in other contexts for other celebrations (since "Hodie" has such a specific connotation). Hildegard knew how unique her message was - it was visionary, channeled directly from God, which made it of paramount importance. It had to be recorded for posterity, collected and distributed, sermonized and sung, written and spoken as far as it could be communicated in the civilized world. Undoubtedly, in her support of the crusades of 1147-49, she may have had hopes for this message to even reach those the Catholic Church regarded as the barbarians who had made advances in Holy lands. The most important thing was that it was written down in manuscripts and has been preserved to this day as the first example of music of which the author is known. As a woman directly receiving the word of God, she was instructed to write down what she saw and heard. Although she was incredibly humble about her unworthy position as a conduit of the Most High, she still recognized (either through divine wisdom or her own foresight) the importance of connecting her name - the name of a woman with an incredible and miraculous history of power and strength amid adversity - to the works she produced, which were incredibly prolific. In a future post, her story will be explored in more depth.

A year ago, during the annual 'Tis the Season concerts with the Pacific Chorale at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, the women of the Chorale opened the concert with the "Hodie" from Benjamin Britten's A Ceremony of Carols. As I sang this introit chant, in unison with about 75 women, the mystery contained in this word was caught up with evocations of Hildegard and mystic chant. Although I had been listening to Hildegard for a long time and had many favorite chants already in consideration for my recital, something struck me about the complexity and depth of the word and the idea, "Hodie." A friend gave me a gift that same Christmas of the Hildegard CD entitled Vision: The Music of Hildegard von Bingen. This recording was created to accompany a biographical and historical summation of Hildegard (Vision: The Life and Music of Hildegard von Bingen, now out of print), which was the first I ever read on Hildegard. Although simple and brief, it is a good hook and introduction for someone who is searching for first-time information about this extraordinary woman and the legends and legacy surrounding her (after hearing her music for the first time, I was hungry for anything I could get my hands on, struck as I was by the unique nature of her music). Although I had heard about the recording, I had shied away from it - being the purist that I am - because of the contemporary "remix" style of interpretation I knew was used. However, since it was a gift specifically given because of my known love and scholarship of Hildegard (and in preparing my recital), I listened to it. I was also keen to listen to as many interpretations as possible - no matter how bizarre or unconventional they might have seemed - to get the broadest concept of contemporary performance perspectives of her music. If you can get past the sometimes awkward superfluousness surrounding the music, there is a kernel of integrity in what is presented. The chant seemed to come first - the performers allowed to sing unencumbered in an appropriately acoustic space - while the synthesized casement most probably was added in a studio, with minimal infringement upon the core monophony. When I came to the "Hodie" track on this CD, I was truly struck by the chant - presented at first in a surprisingly pure form, alone and almost in its entirety at the beginning of the track. I had found what would become the perfect opening piece for my recital, the prelude, welcoming and introducing the audience to the purpose that drove my recital, which is contained in the message of this chant:
Today opens for us
the door that has been closed upon womankind.
And so I celebrate this door through which I have been privileged to walk - today, at Christmas, and throughout my life.

NOTES: The opening "Hodie" from the Vaughan Williams cantata was also sung in last year's 'Tis the Season performance for Christmas of 2008. This year, I had the opportunity to perform the Sweelinck "Hodie" in our first Christmas with the John Alexander Singers performance with the 24-member professional ensemble. In the same concert, I participated in performing Hildegard's O virdissima virga with the women of the John Alexander Singers. Additionally, the "Personent Hodie" carol was used in John Alexander's "A Carol Fantasy," composed and performed as the opening selection for the Pacific Chorale's Christmas album on Gothic Records, Christmas Time is Here (2005).

The friend mentioned as having given me the gift of the Vision Hildegard CD last Christmas was David Reeder, who did the audio recording of my recital and was a fellow graduate student with me at UC Irvine as a composer.
He was also a fellow Medici Scholar in 2008. While my Medici Scholarship enabled me to join a concert tour with the Pacific Chorale as soloist and soprano in the chorus, performing in Southern France and Northern Italy, David was able to use the funding to participate in the EAMA Boulanger summer music program for composition at the Schola Cantorum in Paris.

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Images: (Top) Bottega di Sandro Botticelli, Vergine e il Bambino con Sei Angeli e San Giovanni Battista, circa 1488-1490. (End) Mary, the new Eve (from

Copyright © 2009. All textual and conceptual materials are the sole property of Lorraine Joy Welling and may not be reproduced, copied, or used in any way without permission.


  1. Hildegard is such an inspirational figure. She also used scriptural references in her replies to correspondence from important male figures. Her erudition is not to be underestimated. I am glad you selected her.

  2. Indeed, Hildegard was an amazing woman (she was the original inspiration for my entire recital, which began and ended with her) - everything in her life was saturated with mystical spirituality. There was no separation between "everyday" life and divine inspiration (part of that could have been due to the fact that she was almost constantly seeing visions and hearing divine voices and choirs of angels - the divine plane was part of the reality surrounding her regularly). And the power and influence she had among powerful men of her age, is indeed shown in her correspondence (which was highly sought and prolific) - her divinely inspired advice was sought by and given to kings, archbishops, and popes.

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