Sunday, 18 December 2011

Ave abbatissa nobilis

Norman Lebrecht's blog Slipped Disc brings us news that Pope Benedict XVI is about to officially canonise a composer - the German abbess, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), who is also set to made a doctor of the Church in 2012.

Hildegard's popularity has soared in recent decades, doubtless initially prompted by the growth of scholarly interest in women composers of the Middle Ages but moving dramatically into the public sphere when Gothic Voices (featuring Emma Kirkby) released their best-selling CD, "A Feather on the Breath of God", in the 1980s. TV programmes followed, including a BBC dramatisation of her life starring Patricia Routledge ("Man is in this connection an indication of the Godhead while woman, Richard, is an indication of the humanity of God's Son. If you have to perspire, your holiness, I wish you'd go into the back garden, so as not to disturb the people who respect us socially.") Hildegard (an 'holistic mystic') has now even become an icon of the New Age movement.

She wrote a large number of chants. (Cue a short history lesson!)

Plainchant appears to have grown out of early Jewish chants and began to be codified for Christian use by Pope Gregory I some 1,400 years ago. The melody is a single line which can be sung by either one singer or by a choir. Instruments can be used to double the line, but usually aren't. Harmony results from the use of a drone, whether it be just one long note underpinning the whole piece or a strictly parallel melody shadowing the line four or five notes distant from the melody proper.

What gives Hildegard's chants their unique, ecstatic quality is that they soar and leap and turn much more than 'run-of-the-mill' chant (if I may employ such a disparaging term for what are often beautiful melodies!). Her melodies can, on occasions, range well over two octaves and often dance across the central octave with great freedom, while the 'run-of-the-mill' chants of her contemporaries (if we use the word 'contemporaries' very, very loosely!!) usually stick to a far smaller range. Against the narrow intervals (stepwise motion, seconds and thirds) favoured by her fellow chant-writers, who seemed to like their melodies to curve like gentle hills, she made much use of those then-rare beasts, fourths and fifths, relishing the sharper angles they create, which (extending the same imagery) are more like mountain peaks. Her music also make much use of melisma (those swirls of melody on a single syllable of text), giving an even greater sense of life and joyfulness. All this means that Hildegard's music feels fresher, more expressive, more spontaneous, more tuneful, more sensuous, more modern even, to our ears than other plainchant of the time. It's plainchant that lets it all hang out. Or, to put it more formally and probably far more accurately, it's experimental, avant-garde plainchant. Reading around has taught me that the German lands at the time were surprisingly given to cultural experimentation and that new developments in art, architecture and music - including the question of how to make chant more expressive - were enthusiastically discussed in monasteries.

Some fine examples for you drawn from the many Hildegard's pieces available on YouTube. First, you could try one of her antiphons, O pastor animarum (O Shepherd of souls), which begins with a rising fifth and quickly makes use of a melisma on the -mar of 'animarum'. For a responsory, where the chant often alternates between a soloist and choir (one responding to the other), you should probably try what is doubtless Hildegard's most famous piece, Columba aspexit ('The dove peered in', text here). The two recordings linked to clearly show the contrast between unaccompanied chant and that accompanied by a drone. Other fine pieces and performances for newcomers to Hildegard's music include the antiphon O Successores Fortissimi Leonis ('O Successors of The Mightiest Lion") and the hymn Ave generosa  ('Hail, girl of noble birth').

Hail Saint Hildegard!

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