Monday, August 01, 2005

Hildegard von Bingen: An Appreciation

Recently I started listening to Gregorian chant again. Spurred in part by my college reunion (listening to and analyzing chant is one of the things you do as a sophomore there) and partly just by me wanting to listen to something a little more meditative than, say, the Mars Volta. Anyhow, my point is, I've been listening to chant (mainly) for a few weeks. Thanks to a friend's recommendation, I picked up a CD of stuff by Hildegard von Bingen. Who, it turns out, wrote some totally bitching chants.

The particular CD I have is 11,000 Virgins: Chants for the Feast of St. Ursula. I wasn't aware of the existence of a St. Ursula before this, but the story is basically this:

"Ursula, the daughter of a Christian king of Great Britain, was asked in marriage by the son of a great pagan king. Desiring to remain a virgin, she obtained a delay of three years. At her request she was given as companions ten young women of noble birth, and she and each of the ten were accompanied by a thousand virgins, and the whole company, embarking in eleven ships sailed for three years. When the appointed time was come, and Ursula's betrothed was about to claim her, a gale of wind carried the eleven thousand virgins far from the shores of England, and they went first by water to Cologne and thence to Basle, then by land from Basle to Rome. They finally returned to Cologne, where they were slain by the Huns in hatred of the Faith."

And but so Hildegard, herself a noblewoman who wound up in a nunnery rather than married, drew some inspiration from the legend and composed a really amazing series of chants for it.

If you're not familiar with Gregorian chant (or if your only exposure to it was from the bit sampled in that one Enigma album) you could do a lot worse than checking it out, especially if you find yourself looking for simple, evocative music that tends to calm you down rather than start you up. The chant recordings I have tend to be simple melodically, without a great deal of ornamentation - most syllables are sung with one note, the range is pretty restricted, and of course, they're sung in unison - no crazy late-medieval polyphony here!

By contrast, Hildegard really lets loose. She's not afraid at all to use half a dozen notes in a sung syllable, or to send the singers climbing ecstatically to some remarkably high notes and then come right back down. I can't be sure - my ear really isn't good enough - but I think I hear some early polyphony going on - everyone's singing the same words at the same time, but not necessarily the same notes. It's thrilling stuff, especially if you've been on a kind of aural diet for a while and can approximate what her original audience might have heard.

And, of course, there's the fact that this particular recording is sung by four women. My other chant recordings are sung by monks, and one of the reasons that Hildegard sounds so shocking, I'm sure, is because women's voices sound different. I think there are recordings of her work by male singers, and I'm kind of curious to listen to them and see how much of what I'm liking about her is more derived from the performance than the composer.

So, yeah. Hildegard is some good stuff. Check it!

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