Book excerpt

The New York Times Essential Library: Classical Music

A Critic's Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings

Allan Kozinn

Henry Holt and Co.

The New York Times Essential Library: Classical Music
1. HILDEGARD OF BINGENO JerusalemSEQUENTIA (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 05472-77353-2)Includes the title work as well as Quia felix puerita--Magnificat, O felix apparitio, O beatissime Ruperte, O tu illustrata, Cum erubuerint, O frondens virga--Gloria patri--Ave generosa, O quam preciosa, O ignee spiritus, O quam magnum miraculum est, and instrumental works.Recorded 1995It took until the second half of the twentieth century for women to come into their own as composers, that is, for more than one or two to be recognized as important voices in the global musical dialogue. But women have always composed, and the earliest known female composer, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), was also one of the great intellects of her era. Having experienced religious visions from the age of five, Hildegard took up studies at the monastery at Disibodenberg when she was fourteen. Eventually a convent was established there, and Hildegard succeeded her teacher, Jutta von Spanheim, as its prioress, in 1136. In around 1150, Hildegard established her own convent at Rupertsberg, near Bingen; and when that house became too crowded, in 1165, she established another at Eibingen.Hildegard's writings include Scivias, a collection of fourteen extended poems in which she describes twenty-six revelations that came to her in her visions, as well as works on science and medicine, a trilogy of allegorical religious works, and the lives of Saint Disibod and Saint Rupert. Having achieved a reputation for prophecy and working miracles, Hildegard maintained correspondence with popes, emperors, and other leaders, and when challenged on matters of religious doctrine or practice, she held her ground.As a Benedictine abbess, Hildegard naturally devoted her musical energies entirely to sacred works, most of which are settings ofecstatic texts drawn from her own poetry. There are a few basic hallmarks in her musical language. She wrote long before the invention of the modern scale and the system of keys that we now take for granted. For Hildegard, music was rooted in the church modes, which you can think of as (roughly speaking) a series of scales based on the white keys of the piano keyboard, with no sharps or flats. Each of these modes had a distinct character, and was used to stir a particular kind of feeling: works in the mode beginning on G, for example, were joyous; those on D evoked purity.Also, Hildegard's music is monophonic: her compositions are single melodies, with no harmony or counterpoint (polyphony), whether performed by one singer or many. Yet a single line is hardly a limitation: sometimes Hildegard sets her texts simply and syllabically, but often a word is painted with expansive, soaring melismas that, in extreme cases, reached more than seventy notes.Among Hildegard's musical works is a morality play, Ordo Virtutum, in which the soul is tempted by the Devil, but is persuaded back to the right path by the Virtues. Sequentia recorded this extraordinary work twice (in 1982 and 1997, both for Deutsche Harmonia Mundi). But the group's vividly sung O Jerusalem collection seems a better and more varied introduction to her music. It proposes an imaginative (if also imaginary, or at least fanciful) reconstruction of the dedicatory ceremony at Rupertsberg. Several of the pieces, including the title work, include paeans to Saint Rupert; indeed, considered in the context of a dedication ceremony, there is a suggestion that the convent represents an earthly analog to the vision of a spiritual Jerusalem that Hildegard's text describes.Several early-music ensembles have recorded these works, and typically they have given the pieces straightforward, devotional performances that bring out their beauty but, compared with Sequentia's reading, sound a bit staid. Sequentia gives its performance of the title work a context: the first sounds one hears are the bells and ambience of the Bamberg Cathedral. Like other ensembles, Sequentia gives most of the work to its female singers, although one--"O ignee spiritus"--is performed by men. (Men's and women's voices would, of course, not have been heard together in the church music of Hildegard's time.)But here, too, Sequentia takes a different path than most groups. Although in works performed by compact vocal forces (two or three voices) they sing with polish and precision, those qualities are not presented as an ideal. Rather, in works for the massed ensemble, Sequentia's singers give the pieces the slightly rough-hewn, earthy, real-life sound that one might actually have heard in a convent or monastery. The vibrant acoustical ambience of St. Pantaleon, Cologne, abets this feeling.I question the group's inclusion of three brief instrumental works based on themes from Hildegard's vocal pieces, but if they seem out of place in the context of this reconstruction, they offer an opportunity to hear Sequentia's players, and to hear Hildegard's music from a different perspective. Certainly less harm is done here than in, say, Illumination (Sony Classical, 1997), a poorly conceived melding of Hildegard's music and new age electronic instrumentation.The notes booklet for O Jerusalem includes superb annotations by Barbara Thornton, who founded Sequentia with Benjamin Bagby in 1977. Included are quotations from Hildegard's mystical writings and correspondence, all of which bring her to life nearly as vividly as the music. Thornton, who died of a brain tumor in 1998 at age forty-eight, was the driving force behind Sequentia's Hildegard project, which yielded several other highly recommendable recordings, including Ordo Virtutum (I prefer the 1997 version), Canticles of Ecstasy (1994), Voice of the Blood (1995), and Saints (1998), all on the Deutsche Harmonia Mundi label.There are two non-Sequentia Hildegard recordings worth special mention as well: A Feather on the Breath of God (Hyperion, 1984), a varied overview, beautifully rendered by Gothic Voices; and 11,000 Virgins (Harmonia Mundi USA, 1997), Anonymous 4's exquisite collection of chants for the feast of Saint Ursula, mostly by Hildegard but also including works from as late as the fifteenth century.Copyright © 2004 by The New York Times Company Allan Kozinn is a classical music critic for The New York Times. Before joining the staff of the Times in 1991, he was a contributing editor for the classical music magazines High Fidelity, Opus, and Keynote, and he was the music critic for The New York Observer. He lives in New York City.