365 Days of Album Recommendations – July 28

Anonymous 4 – Hildegard von Bingen, 11,000 Virgins: Chants for the Feast of St. Ursula


This may be a somewhat unusual way to include Germany in our week of international music, but Hildegard Von Bingen was indeed German; she was a Benedictine abbess, ultimately a saint, and, most relevant for our purposes here, a composer of extraordinary power, as these chants make abundantly clear.

They are performed here by the all-female vocal group Anonymous 4, who deliver Hildegard von Bingen’s works in a sort of “standard” liturgical context:

“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.”
—Susan Hellauer (Anonymous 4)

Hildegard von Bingen is sometimes understood to be a “Christian Mystic,” and from an early age, she apparently experienced visions:

“From my early childhood, before my bones, nerves, and veins were fully strengthened, I have always seen this vision in my soul, even to the present time, when I am more than seventy years old. …The light that I see thus is not spatial, but it is far, far brighter than a cloud that carries thesun. . . . and I call it “the reflection of the living Light”. . . and I see, hear, and know all at once, and as if in an instant I learn what I know. But what I do not see, I do not know, for I am not educated, but I have simply been taught how to read. And what I write is what I see and hear in the vision. . . . And the words in this vision are not like words uttered by the mouth of man, but like a shimmering flame, or a cloud floating in a clear sky.” —Hildegard von Bingen

The combination of trance-inducing melodic lines, and a pristine blend of voices so seamless as to defy distinction, come together here to create something that is, if not outright religious, certainly spiritual at both the highest and deepest levels. There are no words, ultimately, to describe beauty of this kind. If a chant can be understood as a striving to connect with all that is holy, this is the sound of all that is holy.

Susan Hellauer, in her description above, notes that The Feast of St. Ursula was probably celebrated with “high solemnity.” If you allow yourself to be taken into this music, this is surely the state you will achieve—one of high solemnity.

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