Why did Hildegard of Bingen compose and what was
her attitude towards music? How is this reflected in what
we hear and anyway are we hearing her music correctly?
Big questions. This CD throws up a few thoughts which I’ll
share with you.
In about 1141 Hildegard started to have her visions
written down with the help of a monk named Volmar. She
at first was reticent about this but having been troubled
by visions since her teenage years she finally decided
to tell the world everything. It was indeed the Pope, Eugene
III and indeed the austere Bernard of Clairvaux who encouraged
her further. Her visions were expressed in quite complex
theology. She also drew her visions and of course, expressed
her ecstasy in music and in the setting of her own quite
In her own first writings Hildegard says of music
and its power “Musical harmony softens hearts, inducing
in them the moisture of contrition and summoning the Holy
Spirit”. In an antiphon which also comes into her vast
collection of songs and dramas entitled ‘Symphonia armonia
celestium revalationum’ she explains that “The Holy Spirit
is life that gives life”. Therefore music is an integral
part of life. But what did she mean by ‘harmony’? Is it
the celestial harmony of the universe in tune with GOD
or more mundanely does she imply some improvised vocal
and/or instrumental contribution?
Some recordings of Hildegard have included instrumental
support offering aural variety. In his pioneering recording
for Hyperion Christopher Page and Gothic Voices do exactly
that on some tracks. Page uses a ‘symphonie’ and ‘reed-drones’ with
no more than four voices at a time or else an unaccompanied
solo voice for each piece. This does have the effect of
adding variety and, if it had been needed, support for
the voices in what can be quite long tracts of text and
long melodic lines. Sequentia (EMI 7 49251 2 nla) go a
step further. As well as using the fiddle, harp and psaltery
to accompany the voices, there are also tracks devoted
to improvisations based around some of Hildegard’s melodies.
The Oxford Camerata performs everything a capella
the female items alternating with male ones. Hildegard’s
music was well known by about 1148 and it could well have
been performed by monks but to my mind it seems unlikely.
Nuns sang these melodies and they somehow seem to work
and to live better in female voices. Jeremy Summerly takes
some items, for instance the long opening Responsorial ‘O
chors militiae’, in a free and typically plainsong rhythm.
If you look at say Christopher Page’s 1982 edition of Hildegard’s
music you will see that every note is given as a black
note head with no rhythm indicated. Summerly takes some
items, for instance ‘O vie aeternitatis’ in a slightly
more rhythmic fashion where some rhythms are regularly
repeated giving the listener some a sense of it being a ‘song’.
And this is how Summerly describes these pieces in his
brief booklet note. The rhythmic flow is more dictated
I suspect by word-emphasis. This applies also to the antiphons ‘O
vos imitatores’ and ‘O dulcis electa’. Hildegard’s music
often frames a psalm text as happens with ‘O cohors militiae’ which
uses five verses of Psalm 22 which is sung in a simple
ferial manner to just a few chanted notes. In this context
Hildegard’s melodic lines do indeed seem to be ecstatic.
To create further contrasts some lines are performed as
solos and then the larger group respond with the next line.
Of course the 12th
Century did not
have the same view of dynamics as we do. The Oxford Camerata
allow the grading of volume to be rightly dictated by the
rise and fall of the melodies. Long lyrical rises of pitch
emit an ecstatic crescendo which dies back as the lines
This approach was also taken on an intriguing
disc by the present day nuns of the Benedictine Abbey in
Eibingen (on Ars Musici 1203-2) built very near to where
Hildegard worked for most of her life. They sing the chant
a little faster and also place each work into its liturgical
context as far as possible. This suggests that these ‘hymns’ and ‘songs’ are
especially suitable for the last service of the day, ‘Vespers’.
They also come, as it were, with a pleasant ambience delivered
by a little reverberation.
To offer variety some lines are taken by soloists
and again some by the larger group (no more than four at
If you look at the melodies you will quickly note
how they often suddenly rise up a fourth and then a fifth
or something similar to encompass an octave before dying
back again. It might appear that these moments come randomly
but quite often these powerful melismas are attached to
certain words which seem to stand out from the rest. In ‘O
Cohors militiae’ the words ‘expugnasti’ (translated here
as ‘captured’) and ‘gladio’ (armed) are thus treated. Probably
something autobiographical lies behind this. But we will
Sadly, and I feel a little ashamed to say this,
much as I admire Summerly’s approach and the superb singing
of the eight members of his group the disc might be thought
of as rather dull. I prefer to have some tracks at least
with instrumental participation. However on reflection
I must remind myself to listen with different ears. The
sheer beauty and simplicity of the music can and should
stand alone. However we are not helped by the fact that
the text is not as audible as it should be. I do not blame
the singers. The recording engineers have set the microphone
suitably well back to allow some space around the voices.
Unfortunately the acoustic of Hertford College is rather
unhelpful as I have mentioned somewhere before. To make
matters worse it lacks an atmospheric reverberation which
this music surely demands. The texts are however presented
in the booklet with excellent English translations. There
are also photographs and advice on downloading.
see also review by Mark Sealey