Ancient and contemporary versions of the music of Hildegard von Bingen
Listen to “O What a Miracle” from Antiphons Across Time
Devi Mathieu, mezzo-soprano
Shira Kammen, vielle, viola, harp, contralto
W. A. Mathieu, piano
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Notes from Devi Mathieu
Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) played many roles in her life — abbess, visionary, healer, naturalist, poet, singer, composer, and spiritual conscience for the patriarchy of her time. Above all, she was an awakened being and a teacher of wisdom. Her deepest realizations are expressed in her music, and she made sure to write down her compositions with such beautiful clarity that they could sound across the centuries. Hildegard’s songs are made of vivid imagery and eloquent melodies that carry us far beyond the confines of any sect or doctrine, far beyond intellect itself, all the way into the depths of our being and the mystery of existence.
With Antiphons Across Time and Flower of the Maiden we had two aims. We couldn’t resist an opportunity to bring some of Hildegard’s compositions into sound centuries after their creation. We also wanted to bring her messages of wisdom, possibility, blessing, and inclusivity into a more immediate experience through contemporary language and musical culture.
Antiphons Across Time incorporates three of Hildegard’s works that call on biblical images of Holy Wisdom, Holy Spirit, and the miracle of creation. Hildegard speaks to the all-embracing nature of divinity, God, love, creation, source of all being — and all other words we find ourselves using when we try to name the unnameable. Hildegard tells us that divinity lives within every mote of creation, from quark to atom, from molecule to cell to stone, grass, animals, and stars.
Flower of the Maiden focuses on four of Hildegard’s many works composed in praise of the Virgin Mary. Through them, we go beyond the story of the virgin mother of Jesus more than 2000 years ago, and into the unending story of darkness and failure, embodied by Eve, yielding to light and redemption, expressed by every individual’s capacity to be created anew with each breath.
Notes from W. A. Mathieu
Hildegard von Bingen was a masterful composer not only for her time but for all time. When, in the late 1980s, I first began to listen to her music, I’d already been studying North Indian raga with vocalist Pandit Pran Nath for fifteen years. What struck me was how Hildegard’s music, standing as it does at the threshold of our western musical legacy, contains the subtlety and fluidity of the raga tradition I’d been internalizing. What I found were flowing shapes, not notes like points. And I found those same modalities which, in raga, are so open to sky, nourishing the headwaters of the western canon yet to come. Most amazing was how a single line of melody could support what we, with our contemporary ears, recognize as sophisticated composition.
How could a contemporary composer, with all the harmonic, rhythmic, and formal palette of modern music, bring forward the verities of Hildegard’s musical mind? I found that one must learn first to hear the words, and Hildegard’s music has much to teach modern ears about words. Barbara Thornton, one of the most influential interpreters of Hildegard in modern times, has said (in a 1995 interview) that to the medieval mind, “… poems are music in and of themselves (and) music is an all-encompassing idea. So to combine the music of word and the sounding music of pitch represents an extreme potency in and of itself; we ought not to pull it apart and say which should come first, word or music.”
Surveying all the great masters of song, from Machaut through Gesualdo, through Bach, Schubert, Fauré, Puccini and the rest, no composer in the western world has more completely focused the multiple connotations of words through the holistic lens of music. The braiding of text and music reveals the love and longing Hildegard held for the human spirit, and this became my guide in the recomposition of Hildegard’s antiphons.
Of the two song cycles, Antiphons Across Time was composed first (in 1994). I set the first and third of the three antiphons in that song cycle, and Shira set the middle one. To me, my two settings seem gentle, almost appeasing. By the time I composed Flower of the Maiden a year later, I had felt the sharper edge of Hildegard’s hunger, and the music is more insistent, and uses a wider affective language. There are some direct quotes from Hildegard’s original melodies, but also considerable melodic reshaping through modulations of widely ranging modal harmony.
Devi Mathieu sings early and contemporary music in the US and Europe, coaches singers of early music, and enjoys helping uncover the voice of anyone who thinks they can’t sing. In addition to singing with Trio Ephemeros, she sings Eastern European traditional music with the Balkan ensemble Gradina. Devi has been teaching Hildegard von Bingen’s music, using the medieval oral tradition, since 1996. She leads gatherings that give singers of all levels the opportunity to sing Hildegard’s music as contemplative practice. (Please visit SingHildegard.com)
W. A. Mathieu — pianist, composer, author, and teacher — began recording solo piano albums in 1980. He has composed a large variety of chamber pieces, choral works, and song cycles, and has written four books on music. Mathieu was a disciple of North Indian vocalist Pandit Pran Nath for 25 years. He studied with composers William Russo and Easley Blackwood, and collaborated with Nubian master musician Hamza El Din. In the 1960s, he spent several years as an arranger and composer for Stan Kenton and Duke Ellington Orchestras, and was the musical director for the Second City Theater in Chicago (which he helped found) and for the Committee Theater in San Francisco. In the 1970s, he served on the faculties of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and Mills College. In 1969 he founded the Sufi Choir, which he directed until 1982. Allaudin now devotes himself to practice, performance, recording, composition, teaching, and writing from his home near Sebastopol, California.
Multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Shira Kammen has devoted her musical life to the exploration of early, traditional and contemporary music. She has been a member Ensemble Alcatraz, Project Ars Nova, and Medieval Strings. She has also worked with Sequentia, Hesperion XX, the Boston Camerata, Kitka, Anonymous IV, and the King’s Noyse. Currently Shira performs with Fortune’s Wheel, Ephemeros, Panacea, The Sitka Trio, Calextone, Cançonier and In Bocca al Lupo. She collaborates frequently with Patrick Ball, Margriet Tindemans, Anne Azema, Kaila Flexer, and various theatrical and dance companies in the US and abroad, including the California Revels and The American Repertory Ballet Company. She works world-wide with students in many different settings from summer workshops in the woods to master classes at Yale and the Scuola Cantorum Basiliensis in Switzerland. (Please visit ShiraKammen.com)