The Origin of Fire

The Origin of Fire
(Harmonia Mundi Catalog # HMU 907327)

Music and Visions of Hildegard von Bingen

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 See Text and Translations

Track List

Hymn: Veni creator spiritus
Sequence: Veni spiritus eternorum alme
Antiphon: O quam mirabilis est
and Track 5 Vision 1: The fire of creation
Sequence: O ignis spiritus paracliti
and Track 8 Vision 2: Wisdom and her sisters
Responsory: O felix anima
and Track 11Vision 3: The fiery spirit
Hymn: O ignee spiritus
and Track 14Vision 4: Love
Antiphon: Caritas habundat in omnia 2:16
Antiphon: O eterne deus 2:31
Hymn: Beata nobis gaudia
Listen to Samples

Reviews of The Origin of Fire

Critique or tribute? Now that we bid farewell to Anonymous 4--this is the famed foursome's last recording--we realize that it's been 18 years and 15 or so discs since four unknown young singers decided that (whatever were they thinking?) it would be a cool idea for four women to sing medieval chant and polyphony, for audiences, no less(!) when no one had ever before dared imagine such a thing. And who could have predicted the 1990s world-wide craze for all things chant or the effect of Anonymous 4's appearance on an NPR show--and how lucky they were to have been "picked up" by a label with the sharp A & R instincts and staunch commitment to its artists--not to mention the high production standards--of Harmonia Mundi USA.

Besides reviewing every one of Anonymous 4's recordings for several international publications (including this one), I also wrote articles about the activities of the ensemble, sat in on a recording session, and attended numerous live performances, from Keene, New Hampshire to New York City to Saint Riquier, France. (I even wrote a parody review for Classicstoday.com of their first CD, An English Ladymass, titled "An English Girlymass"--and they posted it on their website!) Remarkably, the quality of performance never varied; the sincerity and personal commitment of the singers never faltered. The focus, the mission, the group's purpose--to sing medieval chant and polyphony--never wavered.

The fact is, these women didn't just sing chant better than anyone else on the planet; they diligently researched and intelligently programmed it, presenting a purposeful, informative package in high-quality recordings that captivated all who listened with the group's amazing, ethereal purity of sound, as if emanating from one heavenly voice. And unlike some other early-music groups, who seemed to regard detached, emotionless interpretations as a badge of "authenticity", Anonymous 4's performances invariably conveyed the joy of singing that these women obviously felt--and breathed and lived for all those years.

As for the present recording--actually completed in the fall of 2003--the group returns to music of Hildegard von Bingen, which they more or less introduced to masses of new listeners on their 1997 disc titled 11,000 Virgins, which focused on chants for the Feast of St. Ursula. This time the theme is the Holy Spirit, particularly Hildegard's visions and their powerful imagery, where fire and light held an important place. Hildegard's own chants are interspersed with selected excerpts from four of these visions--The fire of creation; Wisdom and her sisters; The fiery spirit; Love--which Anonymous 4 has set to hymns and sequences drawn "from medieval German sources".

If you're a fan of chant--and especially if you are an experienced listener--you will be impressed with the sophistication and sheer beauty of Hildegard's work; and if you're a fan of sublime singing, well, you'll find it here, as we always have, performed to perfection by the uniquely gifted, phenomenal, Anonymous 4. So, this turned out to be more tribute than review. But to a group who has maintained such high musical and performance values and has delivered such a distinguished body of work for the last decade-and-a half, they deserve it. Farewell, "girls". We'll miss you.

--David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com

The bad news is that this is Anonymous 4's final recording. The good news is that it's one of their best. Aside from a pair of brief 9th-century chants that flank the main program, the disc focuses on the music of Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th-century Benedictine nun whose liturgical works broke new ground in their visionary texts, rich imagery, and melodic range. The selections here relate to themes associated with the Holy Spirit--the fire of creation, wisdom, the life-giving spirit, and love. The imagery of Hildegard's visionary texts is replete with references to the basic elements--air, earth, fire, and water. The results are boldly original, at least within the restricted confines of chant, which offer compelling listening experiences as performed in the lustrous tones of Anonymous 4. The program includes a pair of Hildegard's most-rhapsodic extended visionary pieces, the consoling "O spirit of fire, bringer of comfort," and "I am the great and fiery power," whose soaring opening musical lines still can shock. Harmonia Mundi, as usual, captures the purity of Anonymous 4's singing in vivid sonics and provides deluxe production values, including a profusely illustrated booklet, with full texts and translations. --Dan Davis, Amazon.com

After 18 years spent together on the road and in the recording studio, Anonymous 4 decided to call it a day at the end of its 2004 touring season. Sad news for the early music world to be sure, but Anonymous 4 has decided to go out with a bang rather than a whimper, producing as its last scheduled Harmonia Mundi album a second collection of Hildegard von Bingen to go with the group's great first collection, 11,000 Virgins. The Origin of Fire: Music and Visions of Hildegard von Bingen differs from other offerings of a similar kind in that Anonymous 4 develops a context for Hildegard's material, combining it with music that Hildegard and her nuns would have sung with regularity. In addition, Anonymous 4 has set to music, apparently for the first time, some of Hildegard's text-only "visions" by utilizing recitation tones found in medieval sources. One usually finds such music without words, as they are designed to be adaptable for a number of texts within a certain portion of the liturgy -- it is nice that Anonymous 4 has located something to hang onto them so that we may hear these psalm tones in recorded form.

The booklet for this release is especially nice, liberally illustrated with Hildegard's visual art and drawings of herbs from medieval books. Susan Hellauer's notes are succinct, elegant, and lay out the concept behind the program in the most comprehensive manner possible without being wordy or obscure. Full texts and translations into four languages are included in a handsome 72-page booklet. The performance of the pieces is, as usual, sublime, with the longer Hildegard works, such as the Responsory "O felix anima" and her extensive hymn-setting "O ignee spiritus," being particularly worthy of comment.

The Origin of Fire does not altogether spell the end to Anonymous 4's journey, as the members have agreed to regroup as needed for special projects. As a closer to what has been a stunning career, influencing the entire early music world, one could hardly wish for a better consummation of Anonymous 4's collective talents than this.  -- David Lewis, Barnesandnoble.com

Whether you're a Roman Catholic or a member of one of the world's other great faiths, you'd be hard-pressed not to recognize the aesthetic majesty of this moment as moving. Which of us has a problem understanding the anxious wait for a new spiritual leader of so many?

Three very recent releases from the Harmonia Mundi label form, by sheer coincidence of timing, a trinity of choral solace in time of conclave. One is sung by women. Another by men. And the third is performed by some of Estonia's most powerful choristers in a ravishing new delivery of music by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

The Origin of Fire'

Who might have thought that an abbess who lived from 1098 to 1179 might today deliver 51 listings when you search her on Amazon.com? Historians say Hildegard von Bingen, known during her life as much for her visionary writings as for her music, was an unabashed mystic. NewAdvent.org's Catholic Encyclopedia calls her a great seeress and prophetess. Never officially canonized, she nevertheless is sometimes termed a saint and was known in her day as the Sibyl of the Rhine.

A new exploration of Hildegard's cloister music has been released by the Anonymous 4 -- the estimable singers Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Jacqueline Horner and Johanna Maria Rose. This is their second foray into this canon and it goes straight for the spaciousness of the soul. Taking advantage of the Christian Brothers Retreat in Napa, California, the singers play each stirring utterance up into the deepest reaches of echoed darkness. This is chilling, shuddering work.

Built around four themes -- the fire of creation, wisdom, spirit and love -- the program highlights the profoundly forlorn beauty of Hildegard's chants. Soothing, regal, impossibly serene, this is ravishing music, imploring the Holy Spirit to "Kindle light in our senses, / pour love into our hearts, / strengthen our weak bodies / with abiding courage." -- ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN)

The Origin of Fire Program Notes

Music and Visions of Hildegard von Bingen

Since almost every bit of sacred music from before 1300 is anonymous, those few works that survive with attributions draw our special notice. We ask not only “who?” but also how and why these works came to be identified with a creator. Even as J.S. Bach signed all his works with “Soli Deo Gloria,” the prevailing attitude among medieval church musicians was that it would constitute pride (if not the “deadly sin” variety then at least the simple human failing) to own music created to adorn the sacred liturgy. And even if not a matter of humility, pieces that were composed for local use did not need an attribution, since it was generally known who had written them.

But here we have a major repertoire—76 pieces of liturgical plainchant and the music-drama Ordo Virtutum—attributed not only to an actual composer, but to a woman neither trained nor working as a musician. How could this be?

Hildegard of Bingen was born into a prominent Rhineland family in 1098. Her parents dedicated her to the church at the age of eight as a “tithe”—she was child number ten—and entrusted her to Jutta, a noblewoman who was seeking a life of holy reclusion. Jutta took Hildegard with her to the Benedictine monastery of Disibodenberg as a prospective nun and, unlike many children who were “assigned” for family reasons to a monastic life, young Hildegard took up the veil and never looked back.

Although she kept them almost entirely to herself, Hildegard had been experiencing prophetic or mysterious light-filled visions from the age of five. Not until she was 43, nine years after she had succeeded Jutta as abbess at Disibodenberg, did she submit to an increasing inner urge to put these visions into writing, along with her own theological interpretations of them. Like Joan of Arc, Hildegard heard “voices”—indeed she insisted that her musical works were received whole from God—but her mystical experiences were overwhelmingly visual: she describes active, complex, colorful scenes of fantastic elements and beings in marvelous settings.

Like a fledgling mid-life writer who miraculously stumbles upon an agent, a publisher, and fame, Hildegard quickly became a spiritual celebrity when her first collection of mystical visions received the support of Pope Eugenius III, who was most likely introduced to her work in 1147 by the French monastic reformer Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153). A year earlier, Hildegard had sent a “cold call” letter to Bernard, one of the spiritual giants of his age, who was impressed enough with it to override his normally ultra-conservative nature (he had condemned the flamboyant Peter Abelard and other radical spiritual thinkers) and pledge his support to the strangely gifted German nun.

Hildegard recorded her visions in a series of books dictated to, and no doubt edited by, her scribe and confidant, the monk Volmar. The first, Scivias (“Know the Ways,” 1151) consists of visions with lengthy explanatory commentary, as well as the texts of fourteen of her liturgical songs. This was followed by two sequels: Liber Vite Meritorum (“The Book of Life’s Merits,” 1163) and De operatione dei (“On the activity of God,” 1173). In addition to her visionary-theological works, on which her wider fame was based, Hildegard also produced an encyclopedic collection of writings on medicine and the natural world. There are even two volumes concerning a secret Lingua Ignota (unknown language), perhaps used by Hildegard and her nuns.

Hildegard’s correspondence was vast and ranged wide—her advice was sought by Pope Eugenius III, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and King Henry II of England, as well as bishops, abbots, abbesses, monks, nuns, and laypeople both noble and common. At the age of 60 she began to travel extensively in Germany, preaching and advising, interpreting dreams and signs—unheard of for a woman, let alone a cloistered Benedictine nun. Such far-reaching influence with kings and prelates (as well as with lesser folk) increased her celebrity and assured her place in the larger world. Thus her musical works, along with her writings on medicine and the natural world, were copied and collected with care, both during and immediately after her lifetime, at least partly owing to the fame of her visionary writings and the value of her spiritual guidance.

By the 1140s Hildegard had begun composing a number of chants for the liturgy, eventually collected under the title Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (“Symphony of the harmony of celestial revelations”). Aside from some isolated fragments, the Symphonia survives in two manuscripts. The first, known as Dendermonde or simply D, was copied around 1175, along with the Liber vite meritorum, and sent as a gift to the monks of a Belgian monastery. Some leaves of the musical portion are missing. The second, called Riesenkodex (Giant Manuscript) or R, was prepared in the decade after Hildegard’s death in 1179. It contains all of her visionary works, and ends with the Symphonia and the Ordo Virtutum. We have used the earlier Dendermonde (probably prepared under Hildegard’s supervision) as our primary source, except for the two pieces (O quam mirabilis and O felix anima) found only in the Riesenkodex.

Hildegard was not a trained musician or composer, and never claimed to be. Whatever the real case may have been, she stated that she received her musical compositions whole—words and music together—in the same way that she received her visions. In today’s terms, she would have been “channeling” them and having them written down by someone literate in music. There is really no way to compare her style, unique and unforgettable, to any other music of her time. Her texts are a rhapsodic chain of images echoing the Psalms and the Song of Songs. Her melodies are certainly formulaic, yet they sound remarkably free and are wedded perfectly to their texts. The vocal range of her melodies and the length of the pieces themselves far exceed those of the standard liturgical chants that she and her sisters would have sung every day. Hildegard’s compositions would almost certainly not have been sung consecutively in any service; they would have occurred occasionally, and must have seemed like exotic creatures alongside the everyday monastic chant.

The program

Since Hildegard’s visions assured her fame, and since her fame assured that we would know of her music, we wanted to include both in this program. The images in her visions are brilliant and varied, drawing primarily on extreme expressions of the natural elements—air, water, earth and fire. Among these, visions with fire and light seem the most frequent and intense.* In her visions and in her songs, fire is related to the holy spirit, described as descending upon Jesus’ disciples as tongues of flame on Pentecost, fifty days after Easter (Acts 2: 1-11).

Four themes associated with the holy spirit provide the framework for the main portion of this program. For each theme—the fire of creation, wisdom (sapientia), the life-giving spirit, and love (caritas)—we have selected one of Hildegard’s works and have introduced it with an excerpt from a related vision. (Although the visions are written in prose, they fall into phrases much like those in her musical works.) We have set these vision excerpts to two types of recitation tones from medieval German sources: invitatory tones (special psalm tones for the service of Matins) for the introductory part of each vision and, for the main part, festive lection tones (polyphonic settings of readings from the Mass and Divine Office). Although such lection tones were composed from the 12th through the 16th centuries, they all share an “archaic” medieval style, with recitation tones on parallel fifths, in the style of primitive polyphony.

To open and close the program we chose two Pentecost hymns, Veni creator spiritus and Beata nobis gaudia. Veni creator (traditionally attributed to the 9th-century German scholar and priest Rabanus Maurus of Mainz) is still sung today, its seven verses symbolizing the traditional seven gifts of the holy spirit (Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Knowledge, Fortitude, Piety, Fear of the Lord). Both hymns have been transcribed from a 12th-century manuscript originating in a German-speaking area of Switzerland. Although hymns are now used as a regular part of the Christian Mass or Eucharist services, they were originally a part of the various “hours” of the daily round of monastic psalms and prayers known as the “Divine Office.”

In the same manuscript there is an unusual sequence, a chant for the Mass characterized by a structure of relatively brief paired versicles (melodic scheme: aa bb cc . . . with possible variations, especially before the 13th century). Veni spiritus eternorum alme opens with the same melody as the standard Pentecost sequence, Sancti spiritus adsit, composed by the Carolingian monk Notker in the 9th century; it then goes on to quote and comment on the text of the hymn Veni creator spiritus. We added a vocal drone to this monophonic composition.

An antiphon is a (usually) short plainchant meant to be used with a psalm or canticle as part of the Divine Office. Hildegard would have composed antiphons to replace the standard liturgical items on special feast days (although which feast is not always clear in the manuscript sources exactly which feast). Neither O quam mirabilis est nor O eterne deus is connected with a specific feast. Caritas abundat appears in the original sources among chants in honor of the holy spirit. Although Hildegard’s antiphons are the shortest of her musical compositions, they are quite a bit longer and more complex than the standard Gregorian type.

The responsory —an element of the nighttime services of Vespers and Matins— is a long and ornate chant, meant to be sung with soloist(s) and chorus in alternation. O felix anima is a responsory in honor of St. Disibod, revered patron of Hildegard’s first convent at Disibodenberg. We have added a drone to the “verse” and “gloria patri” sections of the elaborately decorated melody.

Hildegard composed two major works in honor of the holy spirit, and they are among her most impressive, impassioned pieces. O ignis spiritus paracliti is designated as a sequence; but this sequence, which follows the normal paired-versicle structure fairly closely for the first eight verses (verses 9 and 10 are independent melodies), so greatly expands the length of the typical sequence verse that the usual effect of the verse pairings (as in Veni spiritus eternorum alme) is much less immediately obvious to the ear. The hymn O ignee spiritus only resembles the normal strophic hymn in that it has multiple verses. This is really a monumental through-composed piece with a close relationship between the text, in praise of the fiery spirit, and its intense melodic expression.
– Susan Hellauer

A note on pronunciation
The pronunciation of German Latin that we are using in this recording  is based on linguistic research published by Harold Copeman and Vera U.G. Scherr in Singing Early Music: The Pronunciation of European Languages in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Edited by Timothy  J.  McGee with A.G. Rigg and David N. Klausner, Bloomington: Indiana  University Press, 1996.
– Marsha Genensky
* Some scientists have proposed that Hildegard suffered from migraine and the “heavenly light” could have been related to pre-migraine aura. See e.g. Oliver Sacks, Migraine: Understanding a Common Disorder (Berkeley, 1985).

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On Yoolis Night An English Ladymass Richard Einhorn's Voices of Light A Portrait of Anonymous 4
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