Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)
Grace Davidson (soprano)
rec. 2021, the artist’s home, UK
Texts and translations included
Reviewed as a stereo 16/44 download with pdf booklet from Outhere
Signum Classics SIGCD717 
Hildegard of Bingen is a composer who appeals to the imagination of many different people. She is also one of the most ideologically-abused composers. As she seems to have been a strong and independent character, she has been adopted by feminists as an early personification of their ideals. The mystical character of her texts and her music has led to her’s being embraced by New Age (a hype nobody seems to be talking about anymore). And then there are musicians who feel free to perform her music with the instruments and in a style which are far away from what was common in her time. If she would be able to listen to what some ‘interpreters’ make of her compositions, she would be very surprised.
Barbara Stühlmeyer, who closely worked with the ensemble Sequentia in its project of recording Hildegard’s complete oeuvre, stated that “Hildegard’s songs are not examples of art music that are at home onstage and that can be arranged in effective ways depending on the performers’ inspiration and wealth of ideas. The longer the ensemble [Sequentia] has worked on this music and examined the research that has been conducted on it, the more it has become clear that we are dealing here with music for the liturgy.” She points out that Hildegard’s music reflects the faith of her time.
That was a time when most music was anonymous. It didn’t really matter who wrote the music: the main thing was that it was written in honour of God. The very concept that every human being had its own identity and that this was something important, has come into existence in the time of humanism in the 15th century. In this regard Hildegard of Bingen is a remarkable figure, first because she was a woman who was in correspondence with some of the main figures of her time, but also because in her writings she shows an individual approach to faith and to the world around her.
Some of her writings have come down to us with music from her own pen. 77 chants have been preserved, and – probably the most remarkable part of her oeuvre – a morality play, the Ordo Virtutum. Little is known about the way this repertoire was performed. All her compositions are monophonic. Does this mean that they have to be sung by a single voice? Probably not: at least some of them were intended for performance in the convent of Rupertsberg of which she was abbess. Therefore her chants may have been sung by several singers in unison. As Hildegard was at the helm of her own convent it is assumed that her chants have been performed by high voices, not – as in later times – high male voices or boys’ voices, but female voices. Did they sing a cappella? That is impossible to say. Hildegard had learnt to play the dulcimer, and instruments were used in convents. From that perspective their participation seems possible. If they were used: how? Did they play colla voce or did the players improvise a kind of counterpoint, comparable with the way troubadours and trouvères are assumed to have accompanied themselves? We don’t know. The lack of information about how Hildegard’s chants were performed explains the variety in approaches between performances and recordings.
In the course of time I have heard quite some different recordings, and several times I have attended live performances. These were often very different as far as the interpretation is concerned, but in every case instruments were involved. The singing varied from solo to an ensemble, and sometimes a single chant may have been performed by a single unaccompanied voice. However, I can’t remember ever having heard an entire recording of Hildegard’s chants, performed by one singer, without the participation of any instrument. The disc under review may well be the first of its kind.
I wrote above that Hildegard’s chants probably don’t need to be sung by a single voice. With that I mean that it seems likely that they were sung by more than one voice. However, that does in no way exclude a solo performance. We just don’t know how these chants were performed. That leaves various options open to the discretion of the performer, as long as they are within the borders of what is historically plausible.
Considering the established performing traditions, this disc is a very important contribution to the ongoing debate on how to perform Hildegard’s music. Here we have the chance to hear the music as it was written. When instruments are involved, they usually improvise additional voices, creating a kind of polyphony. That has the danger of distorting our image of Hildegard’s music.
These chants are based on plainchant, often called ‘Gregorian chant’. However, in comparison with that large repertoire, they are different, especially with regard to their range. The range of plainchant is rather limited, but in Hildegard’s chants the melody often goes up very high. One of the frequent melodic formulas consists of a rising 5th, followed by a rising 4th, as one can hear in O Euchari and O Ecclesia. These formulas are not strictly connected to the text: in Hildegard’s chants there is no such thing as ‘text expression’, as we know it from later repertoire. However, it cannot surprise that in O presul vere civitatis the voice moves to its upper register on the phrase “You stand on high not blushing before the living God, and you cover all with refreshing dew: let us praise God with these words”. It is followed by a section in which the voice stays in the same region on the text: “O sweet life, and O blessed constancy, which in the celestial Jerusalem has always built a glorious light in this blessed Disibod.” This way the importance of the text and the spiritual excitement it embodies, is effectively emphasized. If performed in our time, it hardly misses its effect.
It certainly does not here. I am very impressed by the way Grace Davidson performs these chants. I find it very courageous of her to perform this music without any assistance of instruments, all on her own. The magic of this music is perfectly communicated, probably even more than with instruments, as here the text comes across in its most bare form, and the listener is not distracted by the sound of instruments. Technically this is also a masterly achievement: these chants are demanding and require a high amount of concentration and perfect breath control.
This is one of the best discs of medieval music I have heard in quite some time, and it goes straight to my list of recordings of the year.
Johan van Veen
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O ignis spiritus
O Ierusalem, aurea civitas
O Euchari in leta via
O Viridissima virga
O presul vere civitatis
O Virga ac diadema