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The Origin of Fire: Music and Visions of Hildegard von Bingen

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Dec 03, 2014
Category: Classical

A CHRISTMAS CAROL: A tree. A fire. A frosting of snow. What makes the holidays complete? A reading of the Dickens classic. Everyone will enjoy “A Christmas Carol” more if you avoid the 28,000-word original and read my gently abridged 13,00-word edition. (In performance, Dickens read an abridged version.) Watch Head Butler’s first video here. Read about this edition and buy it here.
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HOLIDAY UPDATE: I tinker. I add. I subtract. For some reason, I’m treating the Holiday Special this year like it’s organic, alive, evolving. What isn’t evolving: the charity match. You gave generously and fast, and I’m at my limit. Anybody in a mood to match?
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A very long time ago, before many of you were born, when there was a war so terrible that 1,500 body bags came home a month, I was months away from college graduation and an invitation from the government to join the Army. Bathed in despair, I went to a gospel concert. Something happened there — I came out clear and high. As I walked through the December streets, I saw that Cambridge was beautiful, that everything was beautiful and that I was loved more than I could possibly know. That feeling lasted for weeks. Ever since, December finds me hoping I’ll fall into that magical zone again. And I listen to this….

In the Middle Ages, the world was tiny. Walk ten miles from your town, you might never find your way back. Look at “The Harvesters,” a great painting by Breugel — for those people, that’s a view of their entire universe.

Fame didn’t exist. Pride of authorship wasn’t a concept. Time was nothing. If you were, for example, engaged in the building of a cathedral, you knew it wouldn’t be finished in your lifetime, or even the lifetime of your children.

So people stayed home, did their work, prayed to an all-powerful God and died — usually in their 30s.

Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) was an exception to every common truth of her time. Not only did she live long, she achieved much — and her work as a scientist, writer and composer has been documented and preserved. She is, I’ve read, "the first composer whose biography is known." And although she declared her orthodoxy, she was a rebel who founded a convent of her own.

Her story, in brief: As the tenth child, she was — as was then common — given to the church on her 8th birthday. Her education was rudimentary. Her visions weren’t; as a sufferer from migraine headaches, she saw a glow and colors around people. Naturally, she regarded this play of lights as a spiritual communication from God.

Her visions became more acute. As she writes:

In the year 1141, a fiery light, flashing intensely, came from the open vault of heaven and poured through my whole brain. Like a flame that is hot without burning, it kindled all my heart and all my breast, just as the sun warms anything on which its rays fall. And suddenly I could understand what such books as the Psalter, the Gospels and the other Catholic volumes both of the Old and New Testament actually set forth…

Kindling. Flame. Burning. Warming. These are holy themes. Love, after all, is like a heat wave. And creation is like a fire when we are in its throes. Again, that is not to say we are the authors of our creations. For those in this state, we channel God.

It follows that, for Hildegard and other composers of her period, music isn’t for our pleasure. It’s an attempt to describe the experience of Paradise. Just as Adam is said to have sung with angels, Hildegard wrote music that aspires to divinity. Did she hope her music might be sung in Heaven? That would be too vain. These plainsongs and chants were an "echo of the harmony of heaven."

Along those same lines: For Hildegard, singing wasn’t about performing. Her music was for prayer services, of which she conducted eight per day.  The presence of a congregation was secondary. The communal experience — women singing together in praise of God — was all that mattered. It is entirely possible that these services were conducted with the women’s backs to their audience. [To buy the best CD of Hildegard's music from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]

That total focus on God as the Ultimate Audience gives this music a gravity like no other church music. To listen to it is to be aware not only of the music but of the spaces between the sounds — a cosmic silence. It’s a steady, unchanging silence. Some have called it a "stillness." Whatever you call it, it tunes you, calms you, settles you. This is music as meditation tool, prayer enabler, stress reducer. It intends to link us to the divine, and it does.

For those unfamiliar with Anonymous 4, these women were, for 18 years, the pre-eminent interpreters of early choral music. I saw them every chance I could — their concerts, almost always in churches, took you out of our time and deposited you, 800 years earlier, in Europe. Time travel. For the price of a concert ticket, you took an amazing trip.

Hildegard is a favorite of New Agers and feminists; Anonymous 4 doesn’t go there. Instead, the quartet prioritizes scholarship and authenticity. When it comes to innovation, their boldest decision was to go beyond Hildegard’s chants and hymns. Included here — for the first time — are excerpts of Hildegard’s visionary writing, set to the kind of music she knew well.

From its first recording to this CD — its 18th and last — Anonymous 4 set the standard by which all other Early Music groups are measured. Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Jacqueline Horner and Johanna Maria Rose merged their individual talents into one expression. Individually, they sang beautifully; together, they sang like angels. It’s entirely appropriate that they concluded almost two decades of magic with the music and visions of Hildegard von Bingen.

If you give yourself over to this music, a thousand years disappear. So may your mundane cares. In their place, you might experience beauty. Maybe, briefly, peace.