Friday, November 8, 1996 Concert
The Holy Spirit rings in you, for you are numbered amongst the singers of heaven... So wrote Abbess Hildegard of Bingen in her great sequence in praise of St. Rupert, O Ierusalem, and they are words that could equally be applied to her. Mystic, poetess, playwright, naturalist and composer, Hildegard (1098-1179) was without doubt one of the most remarkably creative personalities of the Middle Ages. In this program, Gothic Voices returns to its roots some fifteen years after the release of its world-renowned recording A Feather on the Breath of God, (a selection of Hildegards more extended sequences and hymns), and attempts to show her achievement against the background of polyphony and plainchant of her era from elsewhere in Europe. Also included in this program are two plainchant propers for the Feast of St. Agnes (21st January) sung in the versions as they appear in the beautifully illustrated Italian Antiphonal in the special collection of the library of the University of Houston.
The three sequences which we are singing tonight all have geographical connections with Hildegard. Columba aspexit presents a vision of St. Maximin as celebrant at the Mass. Maximin was patron saint of the Benedictine abbey at Trier, and Hildegard probably wrote this sequence for the monks there. O Ecclesia celebrates the martyrdom of St. Ursula at Cologne. There were relics of Ursula at Disibodenberg where Hildegard was reared, and this appears to be her response to popular local veneration of the Saint.
In 1150, Hildegard re-founded the monastery of St. Rupert and moved there with her nuns. With its references to living stones taken from the Latin hymn Urbs beata Ierusalem (for the dedication of a church), it is possible that O Ierusalem was written for the monasterys rededication. The two shorter hymns, O rubor sanguinis and Deus enim rorem, are respectively, meditations upon the wine at the Eucharist and upon the vocation of a nun.
In contrast to Hildegards ecstatic monody, we have the long narrative hymn Pange lingua, cor letare, purporting to tell the story of the writing of the Marian antiphon Salve Regina. This was recently rediscovered and edited by Christopher Page, and we are going to perform it in five sections as a kind of medieval soap-opera, each, of course, with its obligatory cliff-hanger ending.
Lest it be thought that there is a great deal of monody in this concert, it must be emphasized that music for more than one voice would have been the exception rather than the rule during the twelfth century. With this in mind, only a few two- and three-voice conducti have been included and only one four-voice motet, the slightly later English Super te Ierusalem / Sed fulsit virginitas which closes our first half.
Two works near the beginning of our program, the plainchant respond Gaude Maria virgo and the conductus Purgator criminum may be seen as anti-Semitic, but this reflects the sad historical fact of increased persecution of the Jews in Europe during the twelfth century. Festa Januaria is, as one might discern from its title, a new year song celebrating the season leading up to Candlemas. Sadly, the manuscript only contains one verse of text but Christopher Page felt that it was so good that it needed a further verse, so he wrote one!
Of the two-voice conducti in the second half of our program, we can date Etas auri reditur exactly as it appears to have been written for the coronation of King Richard I of England, (Richard the Lionheart) in Westminster Abbey on September 3rd, 1189. Deduc, Syon, uberrimas is an attack on corruption in the church, particularly on the Papacy, the Head from which the canker spreads to the limbs of the body politic.
We hope that by setting Hildegards work in the context of her contemporaries, we can demonstrate the extraordinary achievement of her skills with a resonance still clear nearly nine hundred years after her birth.