Music of Hildegard von Bingen, inspired by the legend of St UrsulaPurchase 11,000 Virgins at:
Of the innumerable composers of sacred music before the fourteenth century, only a handful of names have come down to us. It is no small irony,then, that one of the most important is a “poor little woman” (as she called herself), untutored in music, and for whom musical composition was only one small part of a life of mystical experience and miraculous creativity.
From her memoirs and voluminous correspondence, we know a good deal about Hildegard’s life. She was born to noble parents in 1098 in Bermersheim, near Mainz, Germany. She was their tenth child and was dedicated to the church as a tithe—a decision influenced, perhaps, by her poor health and strange visions. At the age of eight she entered a small convent associated with the monastery of St. Disibod near Bingen on the Rhine; and there, under the tutelage of the anchoress Jutta of Spanheim, in her mid-teens, she took her vows. The little convent grew and flourished under Benedictine rule, and when Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard succeeded her as magistra, or leader. It was five years later, at the age of forty-three, that Hildegard saw a vision of tongues of flame, signifying to her that she should write down and share her spiritual experiences, thus beginning her career as mystic, writer, and poet-composer. In 1147, her first writings, describing her visions, came to the attention of the Benedictine reformer and preacher Bernard of Clairvaux and his friend, Pope Eugenius III, both of whom affirmed her gift as prophetess and mystic. Her fame increased, and with it the number of postulants at the convent of St. Disibod. Hildegard proposed to found a new convent at Rupertsberg, a little distance away. The monks of St. Disibod were reluctant to lose the famous Hildegard and her sisters, and Hildegard struggled through numerous difficulties—including a paralyzing illness—before the issue was resolved and the new convent completed in 1150. By 1165, the Rupertsberg convent had so prospered that Hildegard founded a daughter house at Eibingen, just across the Rhine.
In the meantime, with the help of her teacher and confidant, the monk Volmar, Hildegard finished her first visionary work, Scivias, in 1151, and began her scientific encyclopedia in two parts: a book of herbal medicine, called Physica, and a book of compound medicine, Causae et curae. Hildegard was well-known in her day as an herbalist and healer, and her knowledge and veneration of the natural world are evident in her poetry, with its frequent symbolic use of plants, animals, and gems. Between 1150 and 1160, Hildegard also composed and edited her collection of poetical-musical works, the Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations). Two more books eventually followed in this trilogy of visions, as well as hundreds of letters, exegetical works, homilies, saints’ lives, and a glossary of a secret language (her Lingua ignota). Amid all this she found the time and strength, after the age of sixty, to travel and preach throughout Germany. Her long life was filled with controversy and struggle, ending only with her death at Rupertsberg on 17 September 1179 at the age of eighty-one. Although attempts to have her canonized in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were unsuccessful, she is nevertheless honored as a saint in the Roman martyrology. The Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum consists of seventy-seven poems with monophonic music, making up a liturgical cycle for specific feasts or feast classes. There are thirty-four antiphons, fourteen responsories, and three hymns for use in the daily round of psalm and prayer called the Divine Office. There are also five sequences, a Kyrie and an Alleluia verse for the Mass, and several other devotional works. The Symphonia was no doubt intended for the nuns of her convent, though some of its works were commissioned by or sent to monastic men as well. Hildegard claimed to have received these pieces directly in her visions, declaring herself to be a mere vessel or mouthpiece for the divine word. But no matter how they were generated, the absolutely integral relationship of text and music in all these works, their daring use of imagery, and the artful freedom of melodic formula and gesture are truly inspired and are a testament to her genius. Hildegard was not “learned” in the manner of her scholarly brethren, bred on logic and patristic writings. Her intellect fed on the Bible—especially the Psalms and the Song of Songs—and on liturgical language; from these she drew her boldly juxtaposed images and rhapsodic style. In an age of regularly scanned and rhymed religious verse, Hildegard’s poetry is unfettered and unpredictable with melodies characterized by wide, unprepared leaps, ornate melismas, and modal irregularities. Certain typical melodic formulas recur again and again, but the strong bond between text and music—as well as ingenious (or inspired) variation and recombination—transforms these formulas into a hypnotic web of sound. Although scholars have found some similarities to the works of earlier poet-musicians, Hildegard’s style is truly individual and had no direct ancestors or descendants.
We have built our program around the feast of St. Ursula and the Eleven
Thousand Virgins (21 October), for which Hildegard wrote several liturgical
works. This feast was probably celebrated with high solemnity at Hildegard’s
convent, which possessed some relics of the saint and her handmaidens from
the site of their legendary martyrdom in nearby Cologne. Although these
works were collected as a group, they were meant to be heard in the context
of the standard liturgy. We have used as a framework portions of the three
main services of the Divine Office—the midnight Vigil (later called Matins),
Lauds (sunrise), and Vespers (evening)—and have included other liturgical
chants and psalmody along with Hildegard’s compositions. We believe that
hearing Hildegard’s works in this setting is an effective way to recreate
the powerful impression they made on their first audience, both as evocations
of the spiritual events they commemorate and as pure works of art. In our
performances we have occasionally added vocal drones to Hildegard’s chants,
and (where noted) polyphonic embellishment to some of the liturgical psalmody
and to the final Benedicamus domino.
With the exception of a few fragments, there are two extant musical sources for the Symphonia. We have used as our main source the earliest surviving version (Dendermonde, St.-Pieters-&-Paulusabdij, Cod. 9), collected around 1170 at Rupertsberg, probably under Hildegard’s supervision, and sent as a gift to the Cistercian monastery of Villers in Brabant (now Belgium). We have also consulted the later source (Wiesbaden Riesenkodex, Hessische Landesbibliothek, Cod. 2), which was prepared shortly after Hildegard’s death, also at or near her home. It contains pieces missing from the somewhat defective Dendermonde manuscript, as well as compositions written after the first collection was made. It also includes Hildegard’s morality play, Ordo virtutum (Play of the Virtues), a work of astonishing force and originality. The chant and psalmody in our program are taken from roughly contemporary liturgical manuscripts from Germany and Switzerland, except for the final Benedicamus domino, from a British antiphoner of the early thirteenth century. —Susan Hellauer
THE LEGEND OF ST. URSULA
In the church of St. Ursula at Cologne is found an ancient inscription carved in stone, stating that a ruined church was restored in honor of some local virgin martyrs. This inscription is the earliest basis for the legend of St. Ursula and her virgin companions. Since the date and circumstances of their martyrdom were not recorded, it is still not known exactly who she was, when she was martyred (possibly as late as the fifth century), or how many women perished along with her.
The legend of Ursula and her virgin companions was not documented again until the eighth century. In early accounts Ursula’s name was recorded along with five, eight, and eleven other virgin martyrs, but by the tenth century, the number of her companions had expanded to eleven thousand. In the twelfth century, accounts of Ursula and her virgin army not only inspired Hildegard to write the ecstatic chants included in this program, but they also may have kindled certain visions of the mystic Elisabeth of Schönau, as related in her book, Revelations Concerning the Sacred Army of Virgins of Cologne. Her visions added vivid details to the legend and engendered many further accounts of the story, including a version found in Jacobus de Voragine’s still-famous thirteenth-century collection, The Golden Legende, and a particularly lovely fifteenth-century English rendering in Osbern Bokenham’s Legendys of hooly wummen. According to the legend as it was eventually told, Ursula was the daughter of a British Christian king. Against her will she was betrothed to a pagan prince. She received permission to delay her marriage, saying that she wanted to make pilgrimage, but really intending to remain a virgin and dedicate herself to god. For three years she sailed in a ship bearing a thousand companion virgins; they were accompanied by ten noble virgins, each of whom travelled in her own ship bearing a thousand companion virgins. They went on pilgrimage to Rome; on their way back to Britain, they stopped in Cologne. It was there that Ursula and her companions were martyred by the Huns after Ursula refused to marry their chief. They were buried in Cologne, and later, a church was built in their honor.—Marsha Genensky and Johanna Maria Rose
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