Recording of November 1997: 11,000 Virgins

Anonymous 4
Harmonia Mundi HM 907200 (CD). 1997. Robina G. Young, prod.; Brad Michel, eng. DDD. TT: 72:07
Performance ****½
Sonics *****

Hildegard von Bingen was born 900 years ago, when the shadow of Imperial Rome still lay long over Europe. She first saw the light, literally and figuratively, in an age of absolutes. Troubled by visions as a child (she called it "the living light"; the modern diagnosis is migraine with severe visual disturbance), she was given at the age of eight to a Church venial and simoniacal, whose absolutes were breaking down under simultaneous pressure from the logical disputations of Pierre Abelard in Paris, and the simple charismatic piety of the Albigensians in southern France.

During her long life, Hildegard became famous as a mystic and seer, and also as the intensely practical founder and guardian of two monastic communities of women. The question is: Why the sudden modern fascination (evidenced in a spate of record releases) with a woman whose life and world are almost incomprehensible in 20th-century terms?

I believe the answer to this question lies, at least partly, in what early-music conductor Marcel Pérés calls "...a 'planished' conception of spirituality illustrated by the 'New Age' movements." It is easy to dismiss the New Age salad-bar approach to faith (thousands of ancient Egyptians laboring for years so that Khufu, or Cheops, could have sharp razor blades), and discuss Hildegard as though she were just another medieval liturgical composer, but this is to miss her essential nature.

I recently saw a television program that compared the logical, witty, almost-modern figure of Abelard with the aescetic and visionary Bernard of Clairvaux; needless to say, the latter came off far worse. Like the verities of the Middle Ages, this modern absolute—the unquestioned denial, as Chesterton wrote, that any miracle at all can take place—is also breaking down. The followers of the New Age who adopt Hildegard as one of their own are more right than we might care to admit. After all, what other 12th-century mainstream Benedictine liturgical composer created an artificial language, or gave such a prominent place to women in the celebration of Christian ritual? (Under her regime, women were allowed to sing, among other things.)

The modern women of Anonymous 4 seem well aware of the essential contradictions in Hildegard's life. They have chosen as their program an abbreviated reconstruction of the Divine Office for three of the canonical Hours of the feast day of St. Ursula, for whom Hidegard held a special reverence (see sidebar). To flesh out this reconstruction, they use the works of contemporary composers where no appropriate music of Hildegard's has survived.

This serves not to dilute Hildegard, but rather to emphasize those eccentricities of style that set her apart from her contemporaries. Compare, for example, the straightforward text of the hymn "Jesu corona virginum" (from a 13th-century manuscript), to the sophistication of language and metaphor of Hildegard's "Cum vox sanguinis." Hildegard von Bingen may have been an unpolished Latinist and an untrained musician, but she was able to achieve remarkable effects, and find a considerable language to express her revealed view of God and Man.

In choosing which of Hildegard's compositions to include, Anonymous 4 have placed some emphasis on those which employ erotic imagery (mostly derived from the Song of Songs) to describe the relationship between the martyred Ursula and her heavenly Lover. While Hildegard is hardly alone in such analogies between the sensual and the spiritual, the sheer intensity of her images has remarkable power. Consider the opening passages of "Favus distillans," in Susan Hellauer's lovely and evocative translation: "A dripping honeycomb was the virgin Ursula / Who longed to embrace the lamb of God, / Milk and honey under her tongue..."

I have already risked my own credibility as a critic by gushing with effusive praise for the singing of Anonymous 4: I am not going to stop now. The medieval mystic Julian of Norwich spoke of "self-naughting," the total abnegation of the ego, as essential to achieving the goal of oneness with God. On a more earthly plane, this describes the vocal achievement of Anonymous 4: they simply become a part of the music. Their performance of "Favus distillans" will dazzle you, its combination of the erotic and the spiritual being carried, like Hildegard's feather, on an upward wave of breath and sound. The hypnotic quality of Hildegard's music, intended to encourage the listener in the contemplation of the sacred text, is perfectly conveyed.

In this they are aided by the excellence of the recording. Robina Young has (as usual) avoided the popular equation between lots of reverb and mysticism. It's true that Anonymous 4, when performing live, prefer large reverberant spaces, and the Campion Center where this CD was recorded is such a place. But the microphone placement achieves a perfect balance between direct and reflected sound, and nothing is artificially emphasized; this is what a live performance would sound like.

1998 has been declared the "Hildegard Year" by whoever is in charge of such declarations; already, large numbers of people have turned out for performances of her works. Unlike the usual classical music audiences, these have included people of all ages and interests. Hildegard herself was a child of the age of universal Christendom: I do not think she would understand her modern listeners' era of doubt, cynicism, and an unbelievable (to her) multiplicity of beliefs. I'm not sure this matters at all. What does matter is our willingness to claim her as one of our own, a part of the endless current of human thought.—Les Berkley