Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179, German)

I know: “technically”, there is no “von Bingen” to Hildegard as there is a “van Beethoven” to Ludwig. Hildegard was only Hildegard and should be classified under letter H, not B. She was in fact “Hildegard von Disibodenberg” in circa 1112 when she was offered by her parents as an oblate to the monastery there, and became “von Bingen” only in 1150 when she founded a monastery on the crag of Rupertsberg near Bingen am Rhein. But then she might have been remembered also as  “Hildegard von Eibingen”, after she founded a new monastery there in 1165. So the International Music Scores Library Project does the right thing when they list her among the Hs, between Ulrich Hildebrandt and Henry Hiles.

But then, “von Bingen” seems to have taken credence as her quasi surname, and I certainly slot her on my shelves between Binchois and Bizet (IMSLP lists plenty of composers in between, but none are represented by a CD in my collection. I do have works of the American composer Arthur Bird – a pupil of Liszt – but on a CD with multiple composers that goes in the “collection” section). And CD labels certainly have adopted it – to the point where they ascribe to “von Bingen” works that may have been composed before she moved to Rupertsberg (in truth, the precise chronology of her music composition is very obscure).

So “von Bingen” will do. What is important is the music. Two ensembles were essential in the rediscovery of Hildegard’s music in the early 1980s: Gothic Voices with their disc “Feathers on the Breath of God” on Hyperion (rec. 1981) and Sequentia with their recording of Ordo Virtutum in 1982 and Symphoniae in 1983, followed by six more (including a remake of Ordo Virtutum in 1997, the last in which participated their founder, soprano Barbara Thornton, before her premature death that same year).

Prior to that, looking at the record catalogs from the USA, UK, Germany and France (Schwann, Gramophone, Bielefelder, Diapason) from the late 1970s and early 1980s, only the small German label Psallite (North-German recording studio for church music Bohnhorst) had published PEX 138/250 937 (Kyrie and Sequence to Mary, a 45rmp, 7″ LP, recorded apparently in 1973) and PET 242 / 040 479 (excerpts from Ordo Virtutum and Symphoniae, April 1979) by the Schola of the Benedictine Abbey of St. Hildegard Rüdesheim-Eibingen (yes, presumably the distant “descendents”, if I may, of Hildegard herself) under, respectively, Cecilia Bonn and Immaculata Ritscher – no, I’m not making this up. And Prudentiana Barth was also active in establishing the performance material from the manuscripts. And if you don’t believe this, go check it out on Discogs.com, which proves again an invaluable website, and bless whoever uploaded the entry for PET 242 / 040 479, with plenty of photos. It has been reissued in 1994 to CD by Bayer Records, 100.116, barcode 4011563101161. In May 1980, musicologist and flautist Helga Weber masterminded another Bingen program with celestial soprano Almut Teichert-Hailperin in a few Antiphonies and Responsoriae (together with motets of Dunstable, Brassart and Dufay) considered, in its totally one-voice-a capella approach, a possible model in the rendition of the music of Bingen, certainly more austere and demanding than the vocal interlacing (sometimes with intrumental underpinning) of Gothic Voices and Sequentia, but quite beautiful in its own, barren style. It was first published on LP, according to the invaluable Bingen pages compiled by the regretted Pierre F. Roberge on Medieval.org, by a label called I.H.W. Plattenverstand 66.22387 (online traces are very elusive. Reviews in Fanfare Magazine confirm that it was a private label, and “I.H.W” appears to be the acronym for “Instrumentalkreis Helga Weber”) and on Teldec 66.22387 (this one is referenced on Discogs again. It isn’t listed yet in my Bielefelder Katalog of January 1981, which points to later reissue), and reissued to CD in 1993 by Christophorus CHE 0041-2, barcode 4010072004123 – which I have.

Of course, any interpretation of the music of Bingen is precisely that: an “interpretation”. As I write in one of my Bingen review and if I may be excused for quoting myself, “we don’t know how the sisters of the Rupertsberg monastery in Bingen sung these compositions from their famous abbess, aka “the Sibyl of the Rhine”, nor by which instrumental ensemble they were accompanied or even if they were accompanied by instruments. When you look at the few manuscript scores of Hildegard uploaded on the International Music Scores Library project – troupes of tropes, truly! – , a lot must be mere speculation, imagination and elaboration from the performers”. Comparing different renditions of the same pieces shows how much is up to the performer’s invention.

Not that it matters all that much. Even when based as much as possible on historical research, music performance isn’t the same thing as historical research, it isn’t a dissertation paper in another form, and what counts, ultimately, is the effect on the listener, whatever, ultimately, its historical accuracy. At their best, the various renditions of Hildegard’s music offer glimpses in another world of eternal bliss.

There is more Bingen in my collection than I have hitherto reviewed. Othe than the Gothic Voices CD referenced above, those reviewed are two programs by Sequentia on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, Canticles of Ecstasy (recorded 1993, released 1994) and O Jerusalem (recorded 1995 but released only in 1997).

Medieval.org hosts an invaluable discography of Hildegard by the late Pierre F. Roberge. It isn’t 100% accurate, but it is still 100% useful. The website in general is THE number one discographic resource for Medieval music. I wish it a life at least as long as the Middle Ages.

Coming to think of it, I’m not even sure it is correct to call Bingen a “German” composer. Sure, she was born and lived in the area which is today Germany, but when did Germany really start? And what should be called someone who lived in a place – be it East Francia, Eastern Franconia or The Holy Roman Empire – which would later become part of Germany? Need to look it up on Wikipedia… Or maybe I should relent on this one and just stick with “German”.

Comments are welcome