HILDEGARD von Bingen (1098-1179)
Laudes de Sainte Ursule:
Psalms, Antiphons, Hymn Cum vox sanguinis and Benedictus for the Office of Lauds
Ensemble Organum/Marcel Pérès
rec. 1996. DDD.
Texts available online.
HARMONIA MUNDI HMO8901626
No sooner had I written briefly about Harmonia Mundi’s recent series of
reissues from Ensemble Organum and Marcel Pérès in
than the CDs appeared on my doormat, necessitating that I write in more detail
at least of
those albums in the series which I thought most worthwhile and those that
should come with a warning. This is, sadly, one of the latter.
Set aside the hype that accompanies this reissue about ‘The hidden face of
Hildegard von Bingen’ and there still remains a most remarkable woman; the
rest of the blurb about her being ‘saint, visionary, healer, composer …’ is
true enough. Add ‘artist’: the mandala on the CD cover is one of
her many visionary paintings. Even among the luminaries of the remarkable ‘twelfth-century
renaissance’, she stands out as a composer who still appeals to modern
audiences. Probably more have heard of her than of her older contemporary St
Anselm, the great theologian of the period.
There have been several very fine recordings of Hildegard’s music since
Emma Kirkby and Gothic Voices, directed by Christopher Page, made their now
classic 1981 album for Hyperion A Feather on the Breath of God
(CDA66039 or 3-CD set CDS44251/3 –
review). If you have not yet discovered that, or have mislaid your copy, it
remains available on CD or can be downloaded in lossless sound, with pdf
booklet, including texts and translations, from
for just £5.99. In one form or another, that’s your sine qua non
starting point for the music of Hildegard.
Next up are two Naxos compilations Heavenly Revelations and Celestial Harmonies, from the Oxford Camerata directed by Jeremy
Summerly (8.550998, 8.557983). Though Naxos are now lower-mid-price rather
than budget-price (typically around £7.50), these, too can be downloaded
inexpensively, complete with pdf booklet.
Rather more expensive are the recordings made by Sequentia, directed by
Barbara Thornton, for Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, such as Canticles of Ecstasy (05472773202). There’s a mid-price distillation
of Sequentia’s Hildegard recordings Music for Paradise (Sony
All these offer mostly longer pieces by Hildegard, but Pérès has attempted
to reconstruct a putative celebration of the office of Lauds in honour of
Saint Ursula. Such an office may well have existed, since Ursula and her
eleven thousand virgin martyrs, supposedly slain by Attila the Hun, were
greatly honoured in the Rhineland. Poor old Attila got himself all sorts of
bad names, as in the latter part of the Nibelungenlied1,
but he can’t have been involved with Ursula – the dates are wrong. Nor did
she have 11,000 companions – that arose from a misreading of the M in XI M virgines, short for martyres (eleven virgin martyrs) as mille (a thousand).
No other recording attempts to reconstruct such an office for St Ursula,
but Anonymous 4 did something very similar on their album Eleven Thousand Virgins (Harmonia Mundi HMU907200). That includes
the hymn Cum vox sanguinis, the antiphon Studium divinitatis
and the response Benedicamus Domino, albeit without the psalms to
which the antiphons are attached by Organum. Cum vox sanguinis also
features on a Ricercar collection of Hildegard’s music, Ego sum Homo, featuring the Tiburtina Ensemble directed by Barbora Kabátková (RIC383 –
On the Organum recording, only about one third of the total consists of compositions by Hildegard. The longest of these is the hymn Cum vox sanguinis
[10:34], while the antiphons are mostly under two minutes long. Harmonia
Mundi don’t specifically claim that everything here is by Hildegard, but
they don’t make it clear that most of this recording is a
reconstruction of twelfth-century plainsong.
Your response to the Organum recording will depend on your attitude to
Pérès’ controversial theories, based on the singing of Corsican goatherds and
middle-eastern music. Thus, the opening Deus in adiutorium is
intoned at length, in a ‘chapel bass’ or basso profundo voice, and
the women’s voices are also at a low pitch. Nor is the plainsong sung
without some of the quirks of Pérès’ devising – his own interpretation of
the manuscript notation, which has failed to find general acceptance from those
more scholarly than me. Some may be entranced - Hildegard's music is
entrancing in any performance - but I have to admit to
finding the whole thing uninvolving by comparison with so many other
recordings of her music.
Only the remarkable Cum vox sanguinis really held my attention, with
a performance largely free of Pérès-isms, but taken slowly, as befits the
Organum style. Anonymous 4, whose recording also features only certain
works by Hildegard in a programme of plainsong and anonymous settings,
sound altogether brighter in tone and take the music at a faster pace, and
most will prefer their album. What we hear from Organum may well be closer
to what Hildegard’s nuns would have sounded like, but Anonymous 4 are
enchanting. Stay tuned to this track for the following O rubor sanguinis, the antiphon to the Magnificat. The only
problem is that the Anonynous 4 CD seems to be out of stock at the UK distributor and
eclassical.com download comes without booklet.
The Tiburtian Ensemble are brisker still; even including an improvised
instrumental preface, they take only 6:26 as against Organum’s 10:34 and
Anonymous 4’s 8:10, without sounding too urgent. There is no firm
historical justification for the instrumental accompaniment, but it is
tasteful, minimal and not unduly prominent. Most importantly, the singing
is beautiful and the album is much more likely to appeal to a modern
listener than the Organum. My press download came in inferior mp3; even so, I
enjoyed hearing it.
Sequentia, without accompaniment apart from a drone in some pieces and with
instrumental interludes, also take Cum vox sanguinis at a brisk pace
[6:31] on their album Voice of the Blood (05472773462). My CD,
inevitably, is somewhere at the back of the cabinet and would take hours of
rummaging to find, so I streamed it from
Naxos Music Library.
Overall, Sequentia offer my preferred version of this striking
piece, with Anonymous 4 and the Tiburtian Ensemble runners-up and, I fear,
Organum at the back of the pack.
I mostly enjoy liturgical reconstructions; Paul McCreesh’s Lutheran Christmas Mass with music by Prætorius will certainly be in
action this Christmas (DG Archiv 4791757, mid-price)2. I shall
also be listening to another, less controversial Organum recording, of the
principal Mass for Christmas, as it might have been sung at Notre Dame de
Paris (Harmonia Mundi HMA1951148, budget price). Probably, too, to another
of the recent mid-price reissues on which Organum are joined by Les Pages
de la Chapelle in André Campra’s music for the Mass of Christmas Day, with
Parisian plainchant of the period (HMO8901480).
The Anonymous 4 Eleven Thousand Virgins and Sequentia’s Voice of the Blood also place Hildegard’s music in a roughly
liturgical context and both are preferable to the Organum. Another
Anonymous 4 recording gathers Hildegard’s music on the theme of Pentecost
and that, too, is well worth investigating (The Origin of Fire,
HMU907327, download only – available in 16- and 24-bit format, with pdf
eclassical.com). DH Lawrence ends his poem Bat with the words ‘Not for me!’; that,
I’m sorry to say, sums up Organum’s Hildegard. The other recordings
mentioned are much more amenable.
As Etzel he facilitates Kriemhild’s (Guðrun in Norse) murderous revenge on
her brothers for the death of Siegfried (Sigurð in Norse). As Atli in the
equivalent Old Norse account, he invites Guðrun’s brothers to his court,
murders them to seize their hoard of gold and is in turn murdered by
I see that McCreesh has repeated the programme on DVD (Château de
Versailles Spectacles CVS003). His Venetian Christmas (DG Archiv
4713332), Christmas Mass in Rome (4378332) and Schütz Christmas Vespers (E4630642), more essential listening, are download
only now – and very inexpensive.