Symphoniae is a reissue of the 1985 Sequentia LP Symphoniae: Spiritual Songs, an epochal recording that did much to set off the whole Hildegard boom - if one can use that word to describe the audiences for music by a medieval German abbess. It is largely the work of Sequentia co-director Barbara Thornton, who died in 1998; her creative partner Benjamin Bagby is heard on harps and on other instruments. She sings solo and leads small groups of other female singers. "Symphoniae" was a word Hildegard herself applied to a collection of her own music.
For those who have gone on to investigate other treatments of Hildegard's music, ranging from hyper-authentic to new age inspirational, it will be good to check in with the musicians who were really the first to spot the tremendous relevance of this woman-centered chant. And for those who are looking for a good place to start with Hildegard of Bingen, this disc is still easy to recommend. In both music and liner notes it gives a feel for the key traits of Hildegard's music: its wide, sudden melodic swings, its rhapsodic quality, the unusual locutions and involved, imaginative metaphors in her poetry, and some great imagery that could almost have come out of 1970s feminist literature. In the words of one commentator, Hildegard "used extremes of register as if to bring heaven and earth together," and Sequentia's singers pick up this momentum effectively. A responsory in praise of St. Ursula and her 11,000 martyred Virgins (actually, there may have been only 11) has become especially well known in the years since this album was released. Many of the pieces praise saints and other figures from Christian history and liturgy (often women), and some become mystical in their intensity.
Musically the album takes liberties with what is known of medieval performance practice, but not to an objectionable degree. Some of the chants are sung solo, other responsorially between soloist and choir in the usual manner. On some pieces the performers add vocal harmonies according to the principles of medieval organum singing, something not notated by Hildegard but certainly in the air in her time and place. There are also several pieces done instrumentally, and some of the chants are accompanied by a small instrumental ensemble. The reason often given (and alluded to here) is that Hildegard's writings mention musical instruments as a link to the divine. It's a stretch from that idea to the instrumental accompaniment of music that is usually heard for voices alone, but the results here are lovely. For everyone from medievalists to ordinary mystics, Symphoniae offers worthwhile listening.
All Music Guide
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Hildegard (born in 1098) began to compose liturgical poetry and music in the 1140s, at the time when she first felt the courage to write down her visions. Already in 1148 a Parisian magister, Odo, commended the originality of her songs; in the 1150s she gathered them into a lyrical cycle, that she called her 'Symphony of the harmony of heavenly revelations' (Symphonia harmoniae caelestium revelationum). This, in its first version, contained some sixty antiphons, responsories, sequences and hymns, suited to many feasts of the liturgical year. In the twelfth century only Peter Abelard, in the 1130s, attempted a cycle of liturgical composition on so large a scale. Close study of the two manuscripts in which her cycle is preserved enables us to distinguish also a later, enlarged version of the Symphonia, where Hildegard had added some outstanding songs, including two of those performed here: the two antiphons with more philosophical themes - on divine foreknowledge (I) and divine Wisdom (VIII) - probably belong to the time of Hildegard's last major work, her cosmology Liber divinorum operum (1163-73). Lyrical invention, that is, retained a distinctive, though gradually less prominent, place in Hildegard's astonishingly varied and prolific writing. Symphonia is a key concept in Hildegard's thought, and one that she discusses in early as well as late works. It designates not only a harmony of diverse notes produced by human voices and instruments, but also the celestial harmony, and the harmony within a human being. The human soul, according to Hildegard, is 'symphonic' (symphonialis), and it is this characteristic that expresses itself both in the inner accord of soul and body and in human music-making. Music is at the same time earthly and heavenly - produced by earthly means, but able to evoke for mankind, at least briefly and partially, the heavenly consonance ('Stimmung') that they possessed fully in Paradise before the Fall. In the words of Hildegard's younger contemporary, the poet-theologian Alan of Lille, a symphonia implies an exultation of the mind, to which the vocal celebration and the instrumental execution correspond. Thus, with the consonance of mind and voice and instruments, the symphonia becomes a 'good work' in an existential as well as an artistic sense.
Hildegard's poetic language is among the most unusual in medieval European lyric. She shows herself aware of the imagery of mystical love in the Song of Songs, as well as of certain traditional figural relationships elaborated by the Church Fathers. Thus for instance both Ecclesia and a virgin martyr can be portrayed as the bride of the divine Lamb; Mary is seen as the healer of Eve's quilt, or as the flowering branch of the tree of Jesse, or as the dawn in which Christ the Sun rises. But in developing such images and expressions Hildegard delights in poetic freedom, and in taking diverse kinds of language to new limits. I would signal especially her daring mixed metaphors, her insistent use of anaphorai, superlatives and exclamations, her intricate constructions in which several participles or genitives depend on one another. In one of her most compressed songs (XII), the patriarchs and prophets are the roots of a fruitful plantation whose summit, which they foreshadow, is Christ, but Christ is at the same time a whetstone, that is heralded by a fiery voice (John the Baptist), and that demolishes an abyss (in the harrowing of hell). Hildegard's is a lyrical language that sparkles with intellectual innovation while remaining rhapsodic in its impulses. In the English translation I have tried to reflect as far as possible the superbly obstinate individuality of her diction. Her poetic effects are often strange or violent, and never (as in the hymnody of most of her contemporaries) smooth.
- Peter Dronke, 1985