After all that Baroque and Renaissance music, it’s surely time for something a bit older – and it’s definitely time for some good, old-fashioned, medieval theology, and a glimpse of Mary. (You’ll be seeing a lot of her this month. I tend to think that Advent is all about Mary, and nobody has managed to convince me otherwise so far).
This piece was written in the 12th century by Hildegard von Bingen, an Abbess, mystic, composer, and writer of letters to Popes, Kings, and anyone else she thought was getting it wrong. As an inveterate writer of letters to politicians myself, I have a certain fondness for this habit, which was much harder to manage for a 12th century woman. Indeed, I’ve heard speculation that one of the reasons they really cracked down on letting nuns travel or be involved in the world outside the monastery in the early 13th century was that Hildegard was all very well, but one like her was enough, thank you.
The lyrics to this piece stem from a very classic piece of medieval theology – writers liked to say that ‘Ave’ reversed ‘Eva’ – in other words, that Mary’s consent to be the mother of Jesus brought into the world the salvation that had been taken from it by Eve. ‘Ave’ was the first word of the Angel Gabriel to Mary. But Hildegard’s take on this is just a little more feminist than the usual medieval interpretation:
|Quia ergo femina mortem instruxit
clara Virgo illam interemit.
Et ideo est summa benedictio
in feminea forma
pre omni creatura,
quia Deus factus est homo
in dulcissima et beata Virgine.
|As a woman has brought death,
a pure Virgin has conquered it.
Therefore the highest blessing
rests upon the female form
before all creatures,
because God became human
within the sweetest and most beautiful Virgin.
This particular recording uses what I believe may have been contemporary musical instruments (I’m afraid I’m not that knowledgeable about medieval musical instruments), and adds an Alleluia to the start of the piece. One of the more fun things about Hildegard’s music, I find, is that she takes plainchant (a single line of music, with no harmony or accompaniment) and adds to it a bit – often there is a second line chanting the same words on a single note below the melody, like a drone, adding to the sense of rhythm in the piece. Another notable thing about Hildegard is that she was the only composer to write chant for women to sing – much of her work was designed to be performed by the nuns in her convent. Obviously, plainchant can be sung by pretty much anyone – you can set it at whatever pitch you find comfortable – but it’s still fun.
I’m not entirely sure that I like the sound of medieval instruments, but I do love the singing in this recording, which, like all the best recordings of Hildegard’s work, is sweet and meditative. I hope you enjoy it, too.