At first glance it
might seem a somewhat curious coupling
if not bizarre; to put together music
by Hildegard and a large-scale forty
minute work by the contemporary American
composer Patricia Van Ness, yet this
is far from the case. I found myself
thinking, that Van Ness's 'The Nine
orders of the Angels' is what Hildegard
might have written had she have been
alive today. But there is no pastiche
involved here. Hildegard's music acts
as a frame for 'The Nine orders of angels'
and then the whole is climaxed by 'O
Gloriosa' a 13th Century motet from
the Las Huelgas mansuscript.
I feel also that to
fully understand Van Ness's work you
should also grasp something of the way
in which Hildegard's music itself is
To see the score of
say 'Columba aspexit' (as published
by ArsAntico) is to see an unadorned
melodic line, with no rhythmic indications
as is common in music of the period.
No harmony of course, no instruments
obviously. Performances on disc of purely
unaccompanied Hildegard do exist, for
example the one by the Sisters of the
Benedictine Abbey at Eibingen, Hildegard's
home. Their fascinating recording has
Hildegard's music growing out of the
Gregorian psalm chants or acting as
a responsorial before and after the
psalm (on Ars Musici 1203-2). Most early
music groups feel that something should
be added to the music and in all probability
this also happened in Hildegard's day.
The sound-world created
by Gothic Voices on Hyperion or Sequencia
on a Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, discs
recorded almost twenty years ago has
seeped into the psyche of many of us
and the Van Ness work is no exception.
Let me give examples.
A typical Hildegard
vocal line may begin with an arresting
rising phrase almost immediately covering
the interval and giving an ecstatic
effect. Van Ness begins the movement
(IV) 'Angeli Potestastis' with a glorious
‘riser’ given to each of the soprano
voices canonically. Hildegard's music
is modal, Van Ness's lines are also
modal. Sometimes when she breaks away
from that modality as in an impassioned
and dissonant passage in movement IV
at the words 'You can become angels
of death/ Like great cats with bloody
fangs' it is to make a real point which
has emerged from the text. This image-laden
text is by the composer herself.
Drones are often added
to the chants. Page adds the 'symphony'
or reed drones to 'Columba aspexit'.
Sequentia add a vocal drone in 'O Virga
ac diadema' (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi
CDC 7 49251-2). Patricia Van Ness writes
Hildegard-like lines and will pick out
a note at the end of a phrase and have
it held whilst the phrase is repeated
by another voice or whilst it develops
further. Listen to their 'Angeli Potestastis'.
It is a fingerprint of the entire work
and the effect is ecstatic.
In Hildegard's Hymns
there are many verses. 'Columba aspexit'
has four divided as 1a, 1b, 2a 2b etc
ending with a 5a. Tapestry takes the
line that the 'a' section can be soloist
and the ‘b’, a response, can be all
voices. This contrast of single voice
against the tutti is a characteristic
of Van Ness's approach, as in Movement
5 'Raphael sum Virtutem'; a solo voice,
monody, against a unison response ending
And talking about Harmony
... the bare 5th is common in Van Ness
as it is in performances of medieval
improvised harmony and drones. The tear-jerking
last movement 'Michael sum Seraphim'
begins and ends with one and is, like
other movements, generally based around
Track 2 is Hildegard's
'Karitas Habundant'. Track 3 is the
first movement of Van Ness's work yet
stylistically it is almost impossible
to tell them apart at first. The latter
begins with a simple, repeated monody.
When it does blossom, it turns into
three part 14th Century style polyphony.
The booklet notes by
Cristi Catt, one of the sopranos, discuss
the spiritual link between the composers.
"All of the songs" she writes "were
designed to inspire and stretch the
singer and in an active yet contemplative
way". I should say that this is a very
spiritual CD, in the best possible way,
and I have found it a most uplifting
experience to listen to it.
Patricia Van Ness's
short essay tells us a little more about
the process of realization, but she
likewise adds that composing the work
gave her the opportunity to "continue
my ongoing exploration into the nature
of God". She also says that her sole
object is to "seek and find out beauty"
which she says is "the strongest motivation
force in my life". She explains that
she was in almost daily contact with
the singers who, as the work grew, tried
portions out so that the composer could
adjust and alter.
Not surprisingly therefore
Tapestry are utterly on top of every
single demand imposed by the composer
and by Hildegard. A stunning performance
has resulted. The notes tell us that
Tapestry "were born out of our common
love for Hildegard's music" and Van
Ness's work is a continuum of that language.
I wish that more than
two sections from the sequence 'In Mutatanis
Laudibus' had utilized the harp. After
an hour of unaccompanied voices the
effect is of finding cooling water on
a scorching hot day - absolutely delicious.
This is, for me, already
my record of the year and I can only
urge readers for whom this repertoire
is little known or for those of you
who are already engaged with it in some
way to search this disc out. I would
be amazed if you did not become as besotted
with this disc as I am.