We must assume that Hildegard von Bingen died a virgin, but in most other ways she SW,-2 SK,2 seems almost the ideal model of the liberated woman. This is odd, because Hildegard died (at a ripe 81) in 1179, a period when liberated women were almost as rare as automobiles. She was a Renaissance woman several centuries before the Renaissance.
Her work as a composer will be in the spotlight Saturday night at the University of Maryland's Memorial Chapel, when a group called Sequentia performs her morality play "Ordo Virtutum," an avant-garde work of the 12th century. This piece is a vividly poetic account of the struggle for possession of a soul between the Devil and a couple of platoons of Virtues. It predates the next known morality play by more than a century.
But the composer was not a Hildegard One-note; more than 70 of her works (for which she wrote both words and music) survive. Besides poetry, theater and music, she is one of the notable figures of her time in such fields as mysticism, science, medicine and diplomacy. By profession, she was an abbess -- fortuitously, because she was the 10th child in her family and her parents thought they should devote 10 percent of everything they had to God.
If Hildegard had lived, married and died as one more member of the German minor nobility, her name would probably be unknown today. It was, in fact, almost unknown except to scholars before she was rediscovered by the women's movement. Not knowing Hildegard would have been a significant loss to lovers of medieval styles; her music has a simple beauty (much like that of Gregorian chant) that is immediately appealing and lingers in the memory.
None of Hildegard's music has been readily available on records until the recent past, but a "Kyrie" recorded a few years ago on LP (Leonarda 115) made a strong impression, and now there is a whole compact disc devoted exclusively to her hymns and sequences. Its title, taken from her writings, beautifully exemplifies the style of her poetry: "A Feather on the Breath of God." On Hyperion CDA66039 (also available on LP: Hyperion A66039), in a performance by the Gothic Voices ensemble, it is one of the most beautiful items in the rapidly growing field of digitally recorded early music.
A few other current items in this field:
Le Roman de Fauvel. Clemencic Consort (Harmonia Mundi CD, HMC 90994). Nothing from the medieval period could contrast more sharply with Hildegard's ethereal beauty than this biting satire on the greed, pretentiousness, egoism and blind ambition of the high and mighty in church and state. Kings and popes, as well as their minions, are mercilessly lampooned in the allegorical figure of Fauvel, a donkey who rises through flattery, deception and pure wickedness to become the world's strongest potentate. Musically, the work is interesting as an example of primitive polyphony, but its strongest appeal lies in the vigor of its indignation. In these superbly recorded highlights, Clemencic and his ensemble convey that energy with strong impact.
Musique Arabo-Andalouse. Atrium Musicae de Madrid, Gregorio Paniagua (Harmonia Mundi CD, HMC 90389). Performances of early medieval monophony have been enlivened enormously in the last generation by interpreters who adopt Arabic styles and techniques, exploring the theory that the troubadours and some of their followers were heavily influenced by the culture of the Middle East. Whatever its scholarly validity, the theory makes the music more interesting, and the rambunctious Atrium Musicae ensemble implements musicological theory with impressive vitality. This collection of old Arabic music from the Iberian peninsula seems to have strong affinities to music that was being composed much later in southern Europe, but it also resembles the music you can still hear today accompanying belly dancers.
Rene Clemencic et ses flu tes (Harmonia Mundi CD, HMC 90384). Fans of the recorder will not want to miss this record, which features 21 members of that instrumental family played by one of its leading exponents with a good ensemble backing him up on authentic old instruments. The repertoire, ranging from the medieval to the baroque, is interesting and well played, but the record's chief interest lies in the variety of tones produced by the instruments of varying ages and materials.
Clement Janequin: Le Chant des Oyseaulx (Harmonia Mundi CD, HMC 901099). This disc contains 20 selections by this great master of vocal music, and it is probably unique among Janequin records in not including his spectacular, often-performed virtuoso piece, "La Bataille." Still, the collection includes plenty of music that imitates natural sounds -- notably in the pieces on birds. There are also plenty of cute, lightly erotic pieces in the best French Renaissance style.Renaissance Music From the Courts of Mantua and Ferrara, circa 1500. Emily Van Evera, soprano, with instrumental ensemble (Chandos CD, CHAN 8333).
Luzzasco Luzzaschi: Concerto delle Dame di Ferrara. Helena Afonso, Cristina Miatello and Marinella Pennichi, sopranos; Sergio Vartolo, harpsichord (Harmonia Mundi CD, HM 901136). The Chandos record is a fine selection of fairly standard Italian Renaissance material; the Harmonia Mundi is more like a dazzling revelation. Luzzaschi belongs to the generation just before Monteverdi, and his kinship with that great master is obvious in these masterful, well-interpreted madrigals for one, two or three women's voices.