Friday, September 15, 2017

Sony Releases the Complete Works of Hildegard of Bingen

Today Sony released the Hildegard von Bingen Edition, a compilation of the complete musical works of Hildegard as performed by the ensemble Sequentia on CDs originally released by BMG. This is a “luxury package” item that combines 9 CDs with a richly illustrated 152-page hardbound volume (designed in the shape of a gradual book), which incorporates material originally included in the booklets for the original recordings. The major body of Hildegard’s work consists of 77 liturgical songs, all monophonic, that were collected into a cycle called the Symphonia armoniae celestium (symphonies of celestial harmonies). These were distributed (somewhat topically) across six releases entitled Symphoniae, Canticles of Ecstasy, Voice of the Blood, O Jerusalem, Celestial Hierarchy, and Saints. All of these consisted of a single CD except for Saints, which filled two CDs.

The remaining two CDs are devoted to the “Ordo Virtutum” (order of the virtues). As was recently observed in conjunction with a performance of this work, this piece is one of the earliest extant liturgical musical dramas. The text also appears, in a more abbreviated form, at the conclusion of Hildegard’s prose account of her visions, Scivias. Presumably, the “Ordo Virtutum” is the only composition explicitly intended for performance. The liturgical songs, on the other hand, would have been selected for incorporation in specific services, just as hymns are selected for church services today.

There is no question that this package makes for a valuable reference resource. Nevertheless, it would be fair to ask how listeners should approach this collection. By all rights one should listen to “Ordo Virtutum” in its entirety with enough knowledge to follow the plot. However, the plot is unlikely to be particularly compelling to contemporary listeners. The “lead” character is the human soul (Anima) and the challenges it faces in efforts to obtain wholeness of spirit. Guidance comes from sixteen different Virtues; and dramatic tension comes from the Devil, who has only a speaking part. This does not make for the sort of stirring saga one might encounter in The Lord of the Rings!

All the other selections have been removed from a context that is likely to be alien (and perhaps tedious) to most listeners. The way Sequentia tried to group these pieces makes it easier to appreciate the texts. Nevertheless, it all comes to a bit much, particularly since almost all of it is monodic, with any polyphony coming from Sequentia’s approach to performance.

On the other hand there is much to be said for the many soaring melismatic passages that arise in almost all of the selections. One might almost call these pieces the seeds of vocal virtuosity. Whether or not the recordings were made in cathedral settings, there is an abundance of echo effects, which endow those melismata with striking coloration. Nevertheless, from a listener’s point of view, a little of this can go a very long way.

Still, there is nothing wrong with having a large collection that is savored in piecemeal fashion. That is how people used to treat references books that they acquired (before the Internet began to make those volumes feel hopelessly old-fashioned). One could almost see oneself scheduling daily listening sessions, they way earlier generations would schedule readings from the Bible. There are any number of ways to enjoy this collection, as long as one has a clear idea of just what it is that is being enjoyed!

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