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Abbess Hildegard von BINGEN (1098-1179)
Celestial Harmonies
Antiphons and Responsorials from Symphoniae armone celestium revelationum: O cohors milite floris [15.42]; O successores fortissimi leonis [8.21]; O vos imitatores excelse [ 6.34]; O dulcis electe [6.19]; O victoriosissimi triumphatores [9.37]; O cruor sanguinis [6.05]; O vis aeternitatis [8.58]; O Splendidissima gemma [12.43]
Oxford Camerata/Jeremy Summerly
rec. 10-11 August 2005, Hertford College, Oxford
NAXOS 8.557983 [74.18]
Experience Classicsonline

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 complex texts.
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 fall.
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 a time).
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 move on.
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.
Gary Higginson

see also review by Mark Sealey



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