“O Eterne Deus” – Music of HILDEGARD VON BINGEN – Vajra Voices/ Karen Clark – Music & Arts

Millenium-old music from Hildegard von Bingen, visionary, mystic and polymath, sung by an inspired choir, Vajra Voices.

O Eterne Deus” – Music of HILDEGARD VON BINGEN – Vajra Voices/ Karen Clark – Music & Arts 1291, 50:20 (5/13/16) *****:

As a man, I feel it may be inappropriate for me to review this all-female endeavour. But I very much enjoyed the full CD of music by Hildegard von Bingen, and the story behind it. Hildegard was the tenth child of a noble family, born in 1098 near present-day Frankfurt, Germany. From an early age she had spiritual visions, possibly one reason why her parents offered her to the nearby Benedictine monastery. She took her vows at age 14, and entered a stone cell (or “tomb”) under the tutelage of Jutta von Spanheim, six years older and also from a noble family. Jutta instructed Hildegard in Latin and religious practices, and the student learned much, and well.

In one of her visions, Hildegard received a divine directive to write down all she experienced. A visiting monk-priest, Volmar, helped her with this, as well as teaching her music notation and performance on the ten-stringed psaltery. Other visitors spread the word of Hildegard’s wisdom and creativity, and the complement of nuns within the male monastery grew considerably. When Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard was elected Prioress and immediately came into conflict with her Abbott. She wanted to move her order of nuns to a new facility in near-by St. Rupertsberg, and eventually won the battle. Volmar went along as Provost, while continuing as Hildegard’s confessor and scribe (“emanuensis”). It was the first of two monasteries she would establish. She corresponded widely: about 400 of her letters survive, to Popes, Emperors and others, one of the largest collections from the Middle Ages.

In the meantime she became knowledgeable, and wrote books, about medical and botanical subjects. Between 1160 and 1170 she made four preaching tours of Germany, an unprecedented indication of respect from the authorities. One of her major musical works, Ordo Virtutum (The Order of Virtues) is considered the first morality play ever written. There have been several vain attempts in the intervening centuries to have Hildegard declared a saint. Some of the early attempts failed because her order, the Benedictines, did not have the political clout of the Dominicans and Franciscans.

Hildegard set her sacred writings to music, and this CD is a sampling of those songs. The selections are from the major categories of Hildegard’s subject-matter: Trinity (Father and Son), Virgin (Mother and Son), Trinity (Holy Spirit), Patron Saints, and Virgins, Widows and Innocents. They are written in “monophonic” form, with only one melodic line and no indication in the original manuscript as to tempo or rhythm. Some may view them as simplistic, but her soaring melodies, and the intimate relationship between the music and her highly descriptive Latin texts, make her compositions immortal. This would be good accompaniment to contemplation or meditation.

A special vocal group is required to do justice to Hildegard’s music, and we have it here in Vajra Voices, an ensemble of seven women dedicated to mediaeval and modern music “in a singing style inspired by Hildegard von Bingen that is clear, sweet and strong”. The group’s name comes from the Sanskrit word for strength of spirit “as symbolized by the thunderbolt of clarity and the indestructible nature of the diamond’. Contralto Karen Clark is the director, and the only instrumental accompaniment is by Shira Kammen on several kinds of mediaeval harp, and a stringed instrument called the veille, played with a bow.

The group lives and performs in San Francisco, with this recording done in St. Ignatius Catholic Church there in August 2015. It is their first and it was crowd-funded (KickStarter) on the independent classical and jazz label Music and Arts Programs of America. The recording quality, and booklet and packaging are top quality. I end with a hearty recommendation for this album, and a quotation from Hildegard, one of the earliest feminists:

“Woman may be made from man, but no man can be made without a woman.”

—Paul Kennedy

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