The Origin of Fire: Music and Visions of Hildegard von Bingen
Published: Apr 24, 2012
SDG. Bach put those initials at the end of his cantatas. They were shorthand for "Soli Deo Gloria" — to God alone the glory.
That sounds, in our time, like false humility. Back then, it was not. Pride of authorship wasn’t even a concept in the Middle Ages. The world was tiny then — the borders of your town were the borders of your universe. If you wandered off, you might never find your way back.
Just as fame did not exist, time was not a significant concept; if you were engaged in, for example, the building of a cathedral, you knew it would not 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 were not; 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: "When I was 42 years and 7 months old, the heavens were opened and a blinding light of exceptional brilliance flowed through my entire brain. And so it kindled my whole heart and breast like a flame, not burning but warming… and suddenly I understood of the meaning of expositions of the books…" [To buy a biography of Hildegard, "Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary Life," from Amazon, click here.]
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. We channel God. SDG.
It follows that, for Hildegard and other composers of her period, music is not for our pleasure. It is 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. This is, however, not to say that she wrote music she imagined might be sung in Heaven. That would be too vain. These plainsongs and chants were, Hildegard hoped, an "echo of the harmony of heaven."
Along those same lines: To sing was not, for Hildegard, to perform. Her music was for prayer services, of which she conducted eight per day. The presence of worshippers 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.
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. [To buy the CD from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]
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.
Do you dare to give yourself over to this music? A thousand years will disappear. So will your mundane cares. In their place, you will experience beauty. And holiness. SDG, indeed.