Hildegard of Bingen

On Music

O Splendidissima Gemma

O splendidissima gemma
et serenum decus solis
qui tibi infusus est,
fons saliens de corde Patris,
quod est unicum Verbum suum,
per quod creavit
mundi primam materiam,
quam Eva turbavit.

Hoc Verbum effabricavit tibi
Pater hominem,
et ob hoc es tu illa lucida materia
perquam hoc ipsum Verbum exspiravit
omnes virtutes,
ut eduxit in prima materia omnes creaturas.

English Translation

Watch a performance of O Splendidissima Gemma!

Scenic performance of the mystery play Ordo Virtutum by Hildegard of Bingen, performed by Ensemble Ordo Virtutum, Stefan Johannes Morent, Director; Founders Chapel, University of San Diego, San Diego, CA, April 2001. Courtesy of Ensemble Ordo Virtutum 2008. All rights reserved.

We chose this antiphon as the beginning of our scenic performance of the play because it is also found in Hildegard’s Scivias. In the final part of the Scivias, Hildegard envisions heavenly citizens singing in praise to the Lord; a shorter version of her mystery play Ordo Virtutum follows in Scivias. The gestures employed in this performance are based on monastic performance traditions.

Twelfth-Century Innovations

Hildegard’s compositions differ considerably from the older repertoire of Gregorian chant, in much the same way as other twelfth-century compositions. Her songs are based on such earlier models as the compositions of Herman the Crippled of Reichenau (1013-1054).

Hildegard’s compositions have a unique character of their own, however, and are always easily recognizable because of their characteristic modal language. As in other new music of the 11th and 12th centuries, Hildegard regularly combines the authentic and plagal modes normally separated in Gregorian chant. This results in a much extended ambitus ranging from the fourth below the final, the final and the fifth above the final to the octave of the final. In some songs Hildegard even extends this ambitus so much that it reaches a total of 19 notes.

A Splendid Gem for the Annunciation?

In the antiphon, "O splendidissima gemma," the range of tones extends to a total of 12 from A to e. It is composed in the E-mode which Hildegard in particular loved to use. Of course, we do not know exactly how Hildegard’s songs were used with the liturgy of Rupertsberg. But "O splendidissima gemma" could be part of the celebration of Vespers for the Feast of the Annunciation, since its text describes Mary as the “most splendid gem”.

Vespers: prayers said in the evening
Feast of the Annunciation: celebration in remembrance of the angel Gabriel's announcement to Mary that she would give birth to Jesus Christ.

O most splendid gem,
this fair grace like the sun
with which you are infused,
is as a fount flowing from the Father's heart,
Because his only Word,
through which he created
the prime matter of the world
which Eve disturbed.

So the Word was fashioned with you
by the Father into a man,
And therefore you are that one shining matter,
whereby the Word exhales
all virtues,
so that it draws out all creatures from prime matter.