Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) is one of the most important composers of medieval sacred music, revered today for an unfettered and original style that has little to do with what other composers were up to in the Middle Ages. That she’s remembered at all is astounding, given her rough, lowly start in life.
In early 12th-century Germany, a girl who saw patterns of bright colors and had constant debilitating headaches wasn’t a mouth that a poor family had the luxury of feeding. So Hildegard’s mother gave her child away to a Benedictine abbey. While it must have been traumatic for 8-year-old Hildegard, her years as a nun and then abbess blessed us with some unique and fascinating music.
The problem with focusing on only one of Hildegard’s gifts means that I have to leave out all the others, but let me just acknowledge her groundbreaking work in women’s health and her astute political mind. She was also confirmed by the Pope as receiving visions from God, a recurring and painful experience that today would likely be diagnosed as severe cluster migraines causing visual anomalies. Her fans prefer to think of her as a mystic, as she was understood to be in her own time.
As for her compositions – among the earliest by a named woman and the largest set of pieces (nearly 80) by any named composer in that era – they seem to have been just a sideline in this busy life, a way of giving the nuns around her a new way to praise their Creator. She had iffy musical training at best, resulting in a blissful ignorance of the rules of chant-writing that gave her freedom to write whatever the heck she wanted.
Since 1994, when Angel Records released Vision: The Music of Hildegard of Bingen, a CD of synth-and-vocals arrangements by Richard Souther, there has been a steady stream of Hildegard recordings, running the gamut from New Age sycophancy to scholarly medieval reenactment. The past couple of years have been no exception.
It’s appropriate to begin this survey of recent releases with the box-set retrospective by the award-winning medieval ensemble Sequentia. In 1982, under the founding musical director Barbara Thornton this top-echelon vocal group began what they termed The Hildegard von Bingen Project, a goal to make performance editions and recordings of all of Hildegard’s works. With Benjamin Bagby taking over when Thornton died in 1998, the project was finally completed in 2012.
The 2017 box-set release (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi is the first time all of Sequentia’s Hildegard endeavors have been collected, as well as the only recording of her complete oeuvre, which includes dozens of songs and a couple of theatrical pieces. Just the fact that they made these recordings is reason to praise Sequentia, but they also made wonderful recordings. If the spirit of Hildegard still keeps track of what’s happening on earth, she must be thrilled and proud.
Here is Sequentia singing the chant “O vos angeli” (“Oh You Angels”). Their meditative, flowing style has become the model for how to sing this music. And this particular chant is a perfect demonstration of some of Hildegard’s identifying traits: women’s voices singing over a droning tone, long phrases containing expressive and fluid melismas, and a pitch range that reaches from contralto to high soprano. No other medieval chants have a range like Hildegard’s. And if you know your modes, you’ll recognize the spooky Phrygian scale (the one starting on E), which was her favorite.
As calming as this recording sounds, the music is extremely hard to sing well. Not only do the women need a huge range that’s never strained or out of tune, but there’s also the rhythmic aspect. Hildegard’s music was written as pitches only (normal for the early 12th century), so the rhythm has to come from the Latin words, a luxury not available in the open vowel of a melisma. Sculpting the melismas for unison singing requires a director with a clear idea of what she wants and the means to communicate it.
If you have any curiosity about exploring this music, start with Sequentia, the gold standard.
It’s interesting to compare other ensembles that have surely been influenced by Sequentia’s recordings. On their collection of Marienlieder (Songs of Mary) from a manuscript called the Villarense Codex, the German group Ensemble Mediatrix includes one chant by Hildegard. They are directed by Johannes Berchmans Göschl, and this is their only currently available album (on the Profil label).
In this recording of “Femina forma Maria” (“Mary in the Shape of a Woman”), you can immediately hear the difference between them and Sequentia. The tone is less pure and steady, the phrases less carefully crafted. This is closer to the average performance one finds of Hildegard’s music.
Hildegard’s most famous work is Ordo Virtutum (The Play about the Virtues), a musical morality play of sorts, featuring characters such as Patience, Mercy, and Discretion. The only male character is the Devil (heh heh).
Some groups with bigger budgets go in for costumes and special lighting when they perform this work. One organization to give that a try is the German medieval group Ars Choralis Coeln, which has performed its Ordo Virtutum around Europe for the past ten years. They have now put out an audio recording on the Raumklang label, capturing a studio version of their semi-staged performance.
You can hear a six-minute live excerpt of the stage version here, complete with Brechtian German texts interpolated between sung sections. If the rather murky notes on the ensemble’s website are to be understood, these texts are also by Hildegard from the same book that the Ordo Virtutum comes from, but which Hildegard never set to music. Director Maria Jonas, determined to produce an innovative reading, even rejects the usual belief that the word “Ordo” in the title means “Play,” and instead thinks it refers to the rules of Hildegard’s religious order.
The psalteries and rebecs (medieval bowed stringed instruments) blend ethereally with the women’s voices, which were recorded in a highly resonant church. They might not have the precision and elegance of Sequentia, but their performance will take you to a higher place if you allow it. You can listen to all of it on Spotify.
Jonas is not the only one to find Hildegard’s non-musical texts worthy of recording. In a 2019 release by Ensemble Cosmedin (on Alte Musik Zweitausendeins Editions), there’s more speaking than singing. Although Latin was the official language of the Catholic Church, Hildegard wrote most of her prose in German; it’s likely that she simply didn’t know Latin very well.
This album, Du aber sei ohne Angst (But Let Thou be Without Fear) is mostly Hildegard’s German words, gently declaimed by Stephanie Haas while her husband Christoph Haas plays atmospheric percussion. However, there are a few tracks of music. Here is “O ignis spiritus paracliti” (“Oh fire of the comforting spirit”), rendered with moving passion by Stephanie Haas, despite the pinch and shake in her voice. It’s very interesting and rare to hear this music sung by a solo voice.
Meanwhile, the influence of Richard Souther’s experimental and game-changing 1994 Vision lives on, so it’s appropriate to leave you with this dissonant arrangement of “O ignis spiritus paracliti” by saxophonist/composer Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble:
Hildegard of Bingen’s music is still a living, changing thing.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Wellcome Images, line engraving by W. Marshall, cropped to fit format.