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BiBlo – Von Bingen’s Blog, 01


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This blog offers new perspectives on the compositions by Hildegard von Bingen. It is meant for singers and researchers.

Now, “new perspectives”: isn’t that quite presumptuous, given the avalanche of publications and recordings that pour from the screen after you put her name in a search machine?

Yes, if you know what signal tones are;

No, if you haven’t the faintest clue what signal tones might be.

That is what this blog is about, more specifically about the signal tones in the Symphonia composed by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), at her abbey near Rüdesheim am Rhein, half an hour by car from where I had my office for almost 14 years: Wiesbaden.

What do signal tones add to our knowledge about Hildegard and her time?

Up to about the middle of the thirteenth century, liturgical melodies were notated by neumes, since the eleventh century by neumes on a staff. By that time, they could represent pitches of all sorts, dynamic accentuations, and timbral aspects. Since about the turn of the second millennium, musicologists have discovered that certain neumes (and the sounds they might represent) also are melodic codes, conveying messages about text content.

To the list of signal tones discovered in separate studies, I added microtones in 2018, synthesising previous research and my own into a new tool for analysing text by these signal tones (that I called ‘musemes’ in my doctoral thesis, but in normal language, ‘signal tones’ make more sense). All ten signs for signal tones (and the corresponding sounds) mean just one thing: “the text has rhetorical relevance”, just like the question mark means one thing: “this is an interrogative expression”. Imagine ten different signs for the question mark and you understand the concept of the signal tone. Which of the signal tones was applicable depended upon text/melody situations to which I will come back in other blogs.

Signal tones were employed all over Europe up to about 1250. Combinations of more than one symbol in one word simply meant that it was more important. If you learn the ten musical signs representing signal tones, you catch about 95% of the encoded medieval communication hidden in musical notation. No need for a BA or MA Musicology, no need to understand the signs that represent other (more standard) melodic issues.

Just ten music symbols, separate and in combination, reveal that Hildegard implanted a textual waypoint in her melody. That is the easy part; as a musicologist, I may be of some help by the blogs that I intend to publish during the next months.

Interpreting why she added them sometimes is more difficult.

Dan Brown, Templars? Kind of.

Do not expect signal tones helping you cracking the secret to eternal youth, but exciting it is for sure: signal tones are echoes of medieval minds. Learning to communicate in the Middle Ages meant studying RRR: Reading, wRiting, and Rhetoric, and it is impossible to overstate the importance of the latter. All literate people were aware that all oral, written, and symbolic communication via the arts was conveyed on a rhetorical grid. If an orator, singer, writer accentuated a word, an expression or a sentence, both sending and receiving this information was guided by rhetorical education.

In plainchant, signal tones were the sung rhetorical messengers.

Thousands of notated manuscripts still exist, written from Malta to Reykjavik and by the month, more are available for consultation for free. Have a look at the Database CANTUS and the MMMO database, to which I contributed also. The Symphonia are notated in two manuscripts, one from a Belgian Benedictine abbey in Dendermonde kept at the Alamire Library in Leuven, the other is the so-called Riesenkodex from Wiesbaden. We will have a look at them in the next blog.

Before summer, I intend to send my ‘Hildegard-signal tones’ exploration to a musicological journal; readers will be able to follow my research (not my drafts).

Comments are welcome!

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