About this Recording
8.557983 - HILDEGARD VON BINGEN: Celestial Harmonies - Responsories and Antiphons (Oxford Camerata)
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Abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179): Celestial Harmonies:
Responsories and Antiphons from Symphoniae armonie celestium revelationum


Hildegard of Bingen was a remarkable being. In a postmodern Europe that still has to remind itself that women can write inspired music, Hildegard’s compositional beacon shines from a distance of eight and a half centuries. In today’s Europe, science, religion, and diplomacy make strange bedfellows, yet Hildegard appears not only to have reconciled all three, but actively to have investigated their common roots. Given the unusual combination of Hildegard’s accomplishments, perhaps the most comforting aspect of this saintly figure’s uniqueness is that she was not only a woman, but a peculiarly feminine one.

Born into the Rhenish aristocracy in 1098, Hildegard entered a convent eight years later because she was her parents’ tenth child; she spent the remainder of her eighty years as a nun, the latter half as abbess of her own convent. Hildegard was not universally popular during her lifetime: the establishment of her own convent at Rupertsberg near Bingen (into which she attracted twenty nuns of noble birth) was elitist. Added to which, Hildegard’s community worshipped in fine jewellery and ostentatious headgear. Our stereotypical image of the frugal medieval abbess in enclosed orders may therefore be wide of the mark. It seems rather that the sensuality of Hildegard’s music and poetry sprung from an individualistic view of high Benedictinism.

Hildegard’s great musico-poetic collection was completed around the year 1150. Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (‘Symphony of the harmony of heavenly revelations’) is a collection of 77 songs and one music drama. The subjects of these songs are an idiosyncratic collection of individuals and groups—the pieces included on this recording are variously addressed to the Creator, the Redeemer, the Blessed Virgin Mary, St John the Evangelist, Apostles, Confessors, and Martyrs. The five antiphons each frame a segment of psalm verses (taken from Psalms 22, 78, 23, 61, and 113 respectively) and the responsories make use of a refrain—two items in abcb form (O vos imitatores and O dulcis electe) and one (O vis aeternitatis) in abcbdb.

Critics remain divided as to the assessment of Hildegard’s competence as a poetess and musician. Her colourful imagery and capricious melodies can appear inspired or unpolished according to your point of view. To some, these songs appear repetitive and formulaic; to others they are coherent works of genius. And while Hildegard’s lack of formal training in Latin results in inconsistencies and poor construction, the absence of grammatical convention enables a torrent of original imagery to bypass traditional poetic shackles.

Jeremy Summerly

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