A Feather on the Breath of God: Sequences and Hymns by Abbess Hildegard of Bingen

Gothic Voices with Emma Kirkby

album cover

The Work of a Pre-Renaissance Renaissance Woman

During a life of almost wanton creativity that was radical for the twelfth century, the individualistic Abbess Hildegard of Bingen wrote plays and poems, studied medicine, painted (one of her works adorns the cover of this CD), and spent a decade documenting her paranormal visions in a book called Scivias.

Those pursuits all required a certain boldness. In her compositions Hildegard alters the rigid conventions of sacred music to express the sound inside her soul. Her tunes can be appreciated as a derivation of Gregorian chant, the mostly anonymous religious melodies that are forever seeking harmonious resolution. But where chant can feel dutiful, Hildegard wrote gentle spiral-staircase melodies that sway and swerve and suggest what it's like to be seized with religious fervor. Some of them, like "O ecclesia," are imbued with an almost erotic yearning, as the voice attempts ever more unlikely intervallic leaps to unite with the spiritual source.

To modern listeners, this may seem an obvious pursuit—aren't most artists seeking that communion, that higher plane, when they begin? But in the Middle Ages, one didn't "compose": Music was seen primarily as a way to give religious texts a hallowed frame-work. Hildegard is significant for the ardor and the beauty of her melodies: This woman was obviously transported by devotion, and long before it was standard practice, she found a language that enabled her to share that devotion with others.

Released well before the Chant craze of the 1990s, this disc was among the first to show that early music could be commercially viable. Credit for this goes to Christopher Page, the director of Gothic Voices, who stripped away most of the instrumental accompaniments (which often merely double the vocal line) in order to focus on the strangely stirring modal melodies. And to English soprano Emma Kirkby, whose renderings of "Columba aspexit" and "Ave, generosa" exude a calmed, centered beauty. Sliding into her wondrously luminous upper register, she makes it easy to imagine what these themes might have sounded like when Hildegard, the firebrand abbess, first divined them.

Genre: Classical
Released: 1981, Hyperion
Key Tracks: "Columba aspexit," "O ecclesia," "O ignis spiritus," "Ave, generosa."
Catalog Choice: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Next Stop: Karlheinz Stockhausen: Stimmung
Book Page: 320

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