Hildegard Von Bingen - A Feather On The Breath Of God
The unexpected commercial success of Gregorian plainsong in the nineties provided medieval monastic music with hitherto unprecedented attention amongst a musically jaded public. Within a few years it had also allowed the backlash bandwagon jumpers with another cause to hate. However, in the rush to trash plainsong, the style police overlooked its successor and child, polyphonic chant. That has been a positive thing for it has allowed appreciation of the qualities of this remarkable music to grow.
This recording, dating back to 1982, features English soprano Emma Watson taking the lead with the longest lived ensemble specialising in performing medieval music in the UK, Gothic Voices. It is probably the best way to access polyphonic chant and comprises eight pieces from the suite known as Symphonia Armonie Celestium Revelationum by twelfth century German composer Hildegard von Bingen.
As medieval personalities go, von Bingen was unique in many ways. Born to a noble family in Bingen in what is now Germany in 1098, the young Hildegard was destined, like so many excess daughters of the aristocracy, for the nunnery. However, she turned out to be more than just any ordinary nun. She rose to become Abbess of the convert of Rupertsberg and was one of the greatest minds of her era, all the more remarkable because she was a woman. Known in her own lifetime as a philosopher, poet, artist, playwright, and composer, she was also a mystic visionary and a keen naturalist. During her lifetime she was sought out and consulted by all the leading figures of her time - secular and ecclesiastic - and following her death in 1179, she was beatified. Four attempts to have her canonised, however, the last being in 1244, have met with no success.
Today she is perhaps best known for her musical compositions of which the most famous is probably the Ordo Virtutem, an elaborate musical morality play which some regard as the forerunner of western opera. Like all her musical works, the pieces which form this collection were intended for religious purposes. Making use of the latest developments in musical notation, Hildegard adapted the Gregorian plainsong by the using vocals of both sexes as well as some limited instrumentation. The combination of these elements provided early medieval examples of harmonics in Western music while essentially retaining the largely monophone properties of the basic melody.
Thankfully, the performances on this CD have strayed little, if at all, from what was probably the original sound in the twelfth century. Though it is hard to determine what instrumentation would have been used in Hildegard's day, in a church setting it can safely be assumed to have been limited (no instruments of the Devil). Therefore it is safe to believe that these pieces are as close as possible to the sound Hildegard would have intended to have made. And it is the quality and purity of the overall sound which is what draws the listener in. A knowledge of Medieval church Latin, or even a belief in God, is not necessary to appreciate this, but in the event that one desires to know what the words mean, the CD contains a booklet providing a translation into English.
In the end, what makes this so much more than just a musical novelty from hundreds of years ago, is the sheer effect it has on the listener. Many of us will have the odd CD of relaxation music somewhere around the house. You know the sort of stuff - anything from Tibetan yak bells to the sound of a gentle surf breaking on a pebbled beach to whale song. It is marketed as meditation or relaxation music. The soothing voice which serves as an introduction, or the accompanying 'manual' on how to make best of it, serves up the same platitudes about lying down, relaxing, lighting the odd candle or incense stick, breathing slowly but rhythmically and so on in order to relax or meditate. Why bother with those mass marketed modern soundscapes? Here is the perfect way to relax. The music flows over you, never harsh, always soothing. And at the same time you know you are listening to something which has stood the test of time.
This is truly beautiful music. Its true beauty lies in its simplicity, unadorned and yet possessing so many different layers. If you have not discovered the works of Hildegard von Bingen yet, you would do well to check this out. And if you have always written off medieval music because of the mid 1990's hype over Gregorian chant, now is probably the time to check it out anew.
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on 2011-02-22 CharlesMartel Said:
The more I listen to this, the more I appreciate it. At the time, polyphonic chant was new, a change from the prevailing monophonic chant or plainsong. A sort of medieval chuch indie music (LOL).