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HILDEGARD von Bingen (1098-1179)
Laudes de Sainte Ursule:
Psalms, Antiphons, Hymn Cum vox sanguinis and Benedictus for the Office of Lauds
Ensemble Organum/Marcel Pérès
rec. 1996. DDD.
Texts available online.
HARMONIA MUNDI HMO8901626 [78:50]

No sooner had I written briefly about Harmonia Mundi’s recent series of reissues from Ensemble Organum and Marcel Pérès in Autumn 2018/3 than the CDs appeared on my doormat, necessitating that I write in more detail at least of those albums in the series which I thought most worthwhile and those that should come with a warning. This is, sadly, one of the latter.

Set aside the hype that accompanies this reissue about ‘The hidden face of Hildegard von Bingen’ and there still remains a most remarkable woman; the rest of the blurb about her being ‘saint, visionary, healer, composer …’ is true enough. Add ‘artist’: the mandala on the CD cover is one of her many visionary paintings.  Even among the luminaries of the remarkable ‘twelfth-century renaissance’, she stands out as a composer who still appeals to modern audiences. Probably more have heard of her than of her older contemporary St Anselm, the great theologian of the period.

There have been several very fine recordings of Hildegard’s music since Emma Kirkby and Gothic Voices, directed by Christopher Page, made their now classic 1981 album for Hyperion A Feather on the Breath of God (CDA66039 or 3-CD set CDS44251/3 – review). If you have not yet discovered that, or have mislaid your copy, it remains available on CD or can be downloaded in lossless sound, with pdf booklet, including texts and translations, from for just £5.99. In one form or another, that’s your sine qua non starting point for the music of Hildegard.

Next up are two Naxos compilations Heavenly Revelations and Celestial Harmonies, from the Oxford Camerata directed by Jeremy Summerly (8.550998, 8.557983). Though Naxos are now lower-mid-price rather than budget-price (typically around £7.50), these, too can be downloaded inexpensively, complete with pdf booklet.

Rather more expensive are the recordings made by Sequentia, directed by Barbara Thornton, for Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, such as Canticles of Ecstasy (05472773202). There’s a mid-price distillation of Sequentia’s Hildegard recordings Music for Paradise (Sony 88697983052 – review).

All these offer mostly longer pieces by Hildegard, but Pérès has attempted to reconstruct a putative celebration of the office of Lauds in honour of Saint Ursula. Such an office may well have existed, since Ursula and her eleven thousand virgin martyrs, supposedly slain by Attila the Hun, were greatly honoured in the Rhineland. Poor old Attila got himself all sorts of bad names, as in the latter part of the Nibelungenlied1, but he can’t have been involved with Ursula – the dates are wrong. Nor did she have 11,000 companions – that arose from a misreading of the M in XI M virgines, short for martyres (eleven virgin martyrs) as mille (a thousand).

No other recording attempts to reconstruct such an office for St Ursula, but Anonymous 4 did something very similar on their album Eleven Thousand Virgins (Harmonia Mundi HMU907200). That includes the hymn Cum vox sanguinis, the antiphon Studium divinitatis and the response Benedicamus Domino, albeit without the psalms to which the antiphons are attached by Organum. Cum vox sanguinis also features on a Ricercar collection of Hildegard’s music, Ego sum Homo, featuring the Tiburtina Ensemble directed by Barbora Kabátková (RIC383 – review).

On the Organum recording, only about one third of the total consists of compositions by Hildegard. The longest of these is the hymn Cum vox sanguinis [10:34], while the antiphons are mostly under two minutes long. Harmonia Mundi don’t specifically claim that everything here is by Hildegard, but they don’t make it clear that most of this recording is a reconstruction of twelfth-century plainsong.

Your response to the Organum recording will depend on your attitude to Pérès’ controversial theories, based on the singing of Corsican goatherds and middle-eastern music. Thus, the opening Deus in adiutorium is intoned at length, in a ‘chapel bass’ or basso profundo voice, and the women’s voices are also at a low pitch. Nor is the plainsong sung without some of the quirks of Pérès’ devising – his own interpretation of the manuscript notation, which has failed to find general acceptance from those more scholarly than me. Some may be entranced - Hildegard's music is entrancing in any performance - but I have to admit to finding the whole thing uninvolving by comparison with so many other recordings of her music.

Only the remarkable Cum vox sanguinis really held my attention, with a performance largely free of Pérès-isms, but taken slowly, as befits the Organum style. Anonymous 4, whose recording also features only certain works by Hildegard in a programme of plainsong and anonymous settings, sound altogether brighter in tone and take the music at a faster pace, and most will prefer their album. What we hear from Organum may well be closer to what Hildegard’s nuns would have sounded like, but Anonymous 4 are enchanting. Stay tuned to this track for the following O rubor sanguinis, the antiphon to the Magnificat. The only problem is that the Anonynous 4 CD seems to be out of stock at the UK distributor and the download comes without booklet.

The Tiburtian Ensemble are brisker still; even including an improvised instrumental preface, they take only 6:26 as against Organum’s 10:34 and Anonymous 4’s 8:10, without sounding too urgent. There is no firm historical justification for the instrumental accompaniment, but it is tasteful, minimal and not unduly prominent. Most importantly, the singing is beautiful and the album is much more likely to appeal to a modern listener than the Organum. My press download came in inferior mp3; even so, I enjoyed hearing it.

Sequentia, without accompaniment apart from a drone in some pieces and with instrumental interludes, also take Cum vox sanguinis at a brisk pace [6:31] on their album Voice of the Blood (05472773462). My CD, inevitably, is somewhere at the back of the cabinet and would take hours of rummaging to find, so I streamed it from Naxos Music Library. Overall, Sequentia offer my preferred version of this striking piece, with Anonymous 4 and the Tiburtian Ensemble runners-up and, I fear, Organum at the back of the pack.

I mostly enjoy liturgical reconstructions; Paul McCreesh’s Lutheran Christmas Mass with music by Prætorius will certainly be in action this Christmas (DG Archiv 4791757, mid-price)2. I shall also be listening to another, less controversial Organum recording, of the principal Mass for Christmas, as it might have been sung at Notre Dame de Paris (Harmonia Mundi HMA1951148, budget price). Probably, too, to another of the recent mid-price reissues on which Organum are joined by Les Pages de la Chapelle in André Campra’s music for the Mass of Christmas Day, with Parisian plainchant of the period (HMO8901480).

The Anonymous 4 Eleven Thousand Virgins and Sequentia’s Voice of the Blood also place Hildegard’s music in a roughly liturgical context and both are preferable to the Organum. Another Anonymous 4 recording gathers Hildegard’s music on the theme of Pentecost and that, too, is well worth investigating (The Origin of Fire, HMU907327, download only – available in 16- and 24-bit format, with pdf booklet, from DH Lawrence ends his poem Bat with the words ‘Not for me!’; that, I’m sorry to say, sums up Organum’s Hildegard. The other recordings mentioned are much more amenable.

1 As Etzel he facilitates Kriemhild’s (Guðrun in Norse) murderous revenge on her brothers for the death of Siegfried (Sigurð in Norse). As Atli in the equivalent Old Norse account, he invites Guðrun’s brothers to his court, murders them to seize their hoard of gold and is in turn murdered by Guðrun.

2 I see that McCreesh has repeated the programme on DVD (Château de Versailles Spectacles CVS003). His Venetian Christmas (DG Archiv 4713332), Christmas Mass in Rome (4378332) and Schütz Christmas Vespers (E4630642), more essential listening, are download only now – and very inexpensive.

Brian Wilson

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