Ladies, gentlemen, and others, welcome to the 2018 Song of the Day closing sequence. This has been a lot of work and I thought I should try to end it with more than just a set of random tunes, so I picked a theme: Worship, the sacred, and the divine. To start, from Hildegard von Bingen, the oldest song to appear, first sung sometime in the years around 1150: O vis aeternitatis means “The Power of Eternity”.
Hildegard was a remarkable person; reading her Wikipedia entry makes me want to find out more. Normally, upon discovering an interesting ancient I’d go looking for their own writings in translation. But the snippets of Hildegard I’ve read seem to show her as coming from another planet, living inside a spirituality that I can’t begin to grasp.
Which brings us to the subject of The Divine, to which I am profoundly grateful. No, not to any individual divinity, because I don’t believe in any; I mean to the broader notion, which has inspired so much beautiful music, for as long as music has been made. O vis aeternitatis is a fine example, the voice soaring up and up and up, serene as an eagle over the Pacific.
The world Hildegard inhabited, of faith made real in cloisters and their communities, is as remote as that lived by the characters in the sci-fi I enjoy reading. Sometimes a conservative commentator waxes nostalgic for the passing of the stern simple faiths of feudal times, and lament the current loss of grip on Divine Truth. But I like the modern flavor of truth better; a thing contingent on evidence and argument, difficult to establish but worth the effort. Particularly in our troubled twenty-first century, a time when truth is seen as an enemy in the corridors of power. But still, those voices echoing under the high stone curves in the candle-lit dimness.
Above, a manuscript of O vis aeternitatis, probably prepared in Hildegard’s lifetime, from the Riesencodex, a compendium, published shortly after her death, of almost all of her works — musical, epistolary, and theological — a huge 15-kg tome held in Wiesbaden. You can leaf through it, starting here; the above is from page 466 R. The musical notation is not modern.
I’ve long loved a recording called A Feather on the Breath of God; music by Hildegard, performed by Gothic Voices and the wonderful Emma Kirkby. But you can’t stream it and it doesn’t have O vis aeternitatis. Since Hildegard is best consumed an hour or so at a time, I recommend Canticles of Ecstasy, which has really nice arrangements.
Links · Spotify playlist. This tune on Amazon, iTunes, Spotify. I found a really special live performance, lit by candles in an ancient-seeming art gallery in Perm, in the heart of Russia.
Thanks to, uh, Whoever for the fact that not believing in Whoever doesn’t get in the way of appreciating the effects of believing in Whoever by those who do.