Performance aspects: the music of Abbess Hildegard von Bingen

Leda Filippopoulou, RWCMD, PG Dip Year 1, May 2003

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Hildegard von Bingen - visionary, poet, composer, naturalist, healer, and theologian. Born at Bermersheim in Rheinhesse in 1098, the tenth and last child of noble parents, Hildegard showed early signs of exceptional spiritual gifts. She studied with Jutta of Spanheim who taught her to read and write and instructed her in the Benedictine order. After Jutta’s death Hildegard founded her own monastery, where she remained until her death in 1179. She wrote works on theology, herbalism and healing, spiritualism and music. By her own admission she was not an educated person, and her music and poetic work was the result of visions, which she faithfully transcribed. She referred to herself as “the vessel through which God spoke”. 900 years after her birth, Hildegard’s music is being appreciated and performed by a wide range of people. Her music has inspired many other musicians, male or female, and there has recently been a New Age approach to her music. There was “The Electronic Ordo Virtutum”, performed in Manhattan’s Lincoln Center Festival by four composers calling themselves the Hildegurls, australian Becky Llewellyn began using Hildegard as the basis for a modern composition, and at least one male composer, Robert Kyr, set some Hildegard texts to his own music.

But, above all, Hildegard has inspired many early music scholars and groups, who strive since the early 80’s to open her musical world to the public. People like Christopher Page, Barbara Thornton and her group Sequentia or the quartet Anonymous 4 have studied her music and come to varying conclusions as to the method of performance, the use of instruments and voices, tempi and modes. In this essay, I would like to present some of their perceptions on the artistic value and the performance techniques of Hildegard’s music.

“The music of Hildegard is made up of a comparatively small number of elemental melodic patterns, which recur constantly under different melodic and modal conditions and are the common property of her poetic output. … Highly decorative, the text and music of Hildegard's songs are intimately related and inseparable, as parallel syntaxes mirroring (and at times contradicting) one another, while unfolding within an idiosyncratic system of modes. …The music is not drawn from plainchant and is in some respects highly individual. Hymns and sequences are nearly syllabic, while prolix responds are extravagantly complex, with elaborate melismas extending up to 75 notes; antiphons occupy a stylistic middle ground, alternating syllabic and melismatic styles. The responds are supplied with verse and repetenda, and occasionally also Gloria Patri using melodic material from the verse; some antiphons have ‘EVOVAE’ and the hymns ‘Amen’. The sequences use poetic and melodic parallelism, but far from strictly.” (1)

“Hildegard's music can only be fully understood in the light of all her work. The beauty and depth of theme found in her theology, philosophy, cosmology and medicine, can all be found condensed in her music as in a jewel. For Hildegard as for the medieval, music was an all-embracing concept. It was the symphony of angels praising God, the balanced proportions of the revolving celestial spheres, the exquisite weaving of body and soul, the hidden design of nature's creations. It was the manifest process of life moving, expanding, growing towards the joy of its own deepest realizations and a profound unity of voices singing the praises of God here on earth. It was beauty, sound, fragrance and the flower of human artistry. Over 300 times in her writings, Hildegard uses music to illuminate spiritual truths.” (2)

This amazing variety and uniqueness is what makes Hildegard’s music so attractive to performers and listeners alike. Almost all of her works have been recorded, but it seems that her hymns and sequences are some of the favourites. Anonymous 4 and Gothic Voices have recorded many, including O Ecclesia, a sequence about the martyrdom os St. Ursula.

Anonymous 4 believe that “the absolutely integral relationship of text and music in all Hildegard’s works, their daring use of imagery, and the artful freedom of melodic formula and gesture are truly inspired and are a testament to her genius… Hildegard’s style is truly individual and had no direct ancestors or descendants.”

In O Ecclesia the rhythm is fairly slow to accentuate the gravity of the legend of St. Ursula and the phrases are quite short. The four voices in unison are so well blended that they truly sound like one voice, and the sound they produce is flowing and rich. Enhanced by the acoustic of the Campion Center where the recording took place, it embodies the serene and devotional character of this sequence.

In contrast, the recording of the same piece by Gothic Voices uses a much faster tempo (almost twice as fast, so the duration of the piece is only half of that of Anonymous 4) and, consequently, longer phrases. The voices alternate between a soloist and a chorus in unison. The voices do not blend very well, but that enhances the contrast between the solo and polyphonic segments. Even though it is recorded in a church (St. Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead), the acoustics are not as rich as the previous recording. The most important difference is that they use an instrumental drone, played by a symphony. This acts as a bass from which the melody seems to be arising.

Christopher Page’s views on performance techniques are eloquently explained on the CD booklet: “… the more spiritual meaning a text was thought to embody, the more they internalised it by a process which they frequently compared to digestion, absorbing the words in tranquility… Plainchant was often approached in a similar frame of mind. Ideally, singers were to allow their activity to absorb the whole spirit and body, inducing a state of meditative calm and so intensifying the the quality of devotional life.. Distractions, such as the intrusion of instrumental decorations or of extrovert vocal practices, were therefore to be avoided. Discretion was the basis of the ideal: voices betraying a poised, attentive spirit dwelling upon the inner meaning of the text, sensitive to musical nuances but never seduced by them. This is what the performances on this record try to recapture.. It is not the only way of performing medieval plainchant, but it can at least be aligned with virtually every medieval attempt to describe performing ideals. We believe also that such an approach is faithful to Hildegard’s creative personality. … Hildegard’s writing suggests a quiet mastery that controls ecstasy and shuns delirium, always working within the mainstream of Christian tradition.”

Page has said that he now believes that no instruments were ever used in plainchant. He even went as far as to propose that Hildegard’s music might never have been performed at all! This radical view is not shared by many of his collegues, although the use of instrumental drones and backgrounds has diminished in the last 20 years. Barbara Thornton, who recorded the immense Ordo Virtutum (The play of the Virtues) in 1982 with Sequentia, has admited that one of the reasons for the use of instruments in the early days was the fact that singers were not used to sing modally for extended periods of time, and that, as the singer’s abilities increased, the use of instruments gradually decreased.

In their earlier recordings, Sequentia use simple vocal drones in fourths and fifths to enrich the melodies. They also use a variety of instruments for drones, such as fiddle, flute, psaltery, harp, organistrum and symphony. This provides a variety of acoustic backgrounds and makes every piece distinct from the rest.

In the CD booklet of Ordo Virtutum Barbara Thornton provides us with an insight to her unique perception of Hildegard’s music: “Hildegard von Bingen’s literary Latin is surely one of the marvels of the age, not only beautiful to speak and to listen to, but immensely rich in images, which demand a creative imagination and a strong theological background for their understanding. Only through the study of her poetic vocabulary does the logic of some of her musical eccentricities emerge: the juxtaposition of unrelated modes, the surprising leaping melodies, the interruption of declaimed passages with richly ornamented melismas etc. … This, then, is how we designed our musical gestures: in reaction to the symbolic, poetic or dramatic nature of the text. In so doing, we developed a singing style giving special attention to the delineation of primary and secondary notations, the integration of melismas into a primarily declamatory style, the performance of notational ornaments, the arrangement of rhetorical devices, which are so important to the understanding of texts. … The function of the instruments became specifically representative of themes, characters, moods and actions.”

Indeed it seems that all of Hildegard’s fans share Page’s view that Hildegard was “a remarkable woman in an age of remarkable men.”


Bibliography and CD’s

  1. IAN D. BENT/MARIANNE PFAU, “Hildegard of Bingen”,
    The New Grove Dictionary of Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 18/03/03),
    http://www.grovemusic.com

  2. http://homepages.kdsi.net/~sherman/pageonhild.htm

  3. http://homepages.kdsi.net/~sherman/hildegard.html
    The hottest 900-old on the charts by Bernard D. Sherman
    This article first appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Sunday, August 9, 1998.

  4. www.uni-mainz.de/~horst/hildegard/music/music.html
    HILDEGARD OF BINGEN:SYMPHONY OF THE HARMONY OF HEAVEN

  5. www.uni-mainz.de/~horst/hildegard/documents/flanagan.html
    Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)
    Sabina Flanagan University of Adelaide

  6. Hildegard von Bingen – 11.000 Virgins
    Chants for the Feast of St. Ursula
    Anonymous 4, Harmonia Mundi 1997

  7. A feather on the breath of God
    Sequences and hymns by Abess Hildegard von Bingen
    Gothic Voices – Christopher Page, Hyperion 1981

  8. Hildegard von Bingen – Symphoniae
    Hildegard von Bingen – Ordo Virtutum
    Sequentia, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi (recorded in 1982 and 1983)


Footnotes (1) IAN D. BENT/MARIANNE PFAU, “Hildegard of Bingen”, The New Grove Dictionary of Music Online ed. L. Macy

(2) HILDEGARD OF BINGEN:SYMPHONY OF THE HARMONY OF HEAVEN

Posted by Jehan de Lorraine at March 27, 2004 10:53 AM