A Feather on the Breath of God – Sequence and hymns by Abbess and St. Hildegard of Bingen
– A Feather on the Breath of God –
Sequences and hymns by Abbess and St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)
HYPERION Records CDA 66039
Includes full texts in Latin with English, French and German translations.
by Chia Han-Leon
When I think hard about it, 900 years is such a gargantuan expanse of time that it makes me want to cry. And when people remember a person who was born nine centuries ago, it makes immortality practically a reality.
For Hildegard of Bingen (left) – abbess, philosopher, teacher, theologian, zoologist, botanist, medical scientist, physicist, dramatist, painter, poet, composer, visionary, advisor of popes, counsellor of kings and “A Feather on the Breath of God” – immortality isnothing compared to her life and works.
As if befitting the undying beauty of her music, this famous album made by the Gothic Voices in September 1981 remains a deserving bestseller. Having sold over 6-digits’ worth of this CD, Hyperion must be proud of its impact on the music world starting from its 1982 Gramphone Award; and they should be praised for keeping such a shining jewel in their catalogue.
Of the eight pieces here, five are accompanied by either a symphony (symphonia – the medieval name for the hurdy-gurdy – the first string instrument given a keyboard) and/or reed drones. All eight are blessed by the beautiful sounds of the Gothic Voices, in works of one to four parts. The renown Early Music English soprano Emma Kirkby joins them in two of the best pieces, Columba aspexitand O Ierusalem.
No text of greater poetic power and beauty form the heart of the music as that by Hildegard herself. Amidst the rich imagery and vibrant symbolism are themes celebrating divine grace, the Virgin Mary, Saint Rupert (see review of Sequentia’s “O Jerusalem” albumfor more info), Saint Disibod who founded the monastery where Hildegard was raised, and Saint Ursula (of “11,000” martyred virgins fame).
Describing these do no justice to Hildegard’s poetry, nor the rapturous magic of the music. Imagine if you will, the music of these words in celebration of Mary, from Ave, generosa:
Thus your womb held joy,
when harmony of all Heaven
chimed out from you,
because, Virgin, you carried Christ
whence your chastity blazed in God.
Your flesh has known delight,
like the grassland touched by dew
and immersed in its freshness:
so it was with you,
o mother of all joy.
You don’t have to be religious (I’m not) to understand the poetry. It has a formal simplicity so characteristic of medieval art (right: one of Hildegard’s drawings) fused with the resonant beauty evoked by combining the simplest of images, as in the title of this album. This is the work of a mind without any pretensions, completely open to all possibilities, guided by and crafting her visionary art with humane intelligence.
Do yourself a favour – every human being deserves a measure of Hildegard’s visions. Though we may not live forever, we can hear the music, sound and time of Forever – the Forever of Nine Centuries – and take a little dose of immortality through the art of the Sibyl of the Rhine, who (quoted in the CD’s notes) once described herself like this…
Listen: there was once a king sitting on his throne. Around him stood great and wonderfully beautiful columns ornamented with ivory, bearing the banners of the king with great honour. Then it pleased the king to raise a small feather from the ground and he commanded it to fly. The feather flew, not because of anything in itself but because the air bore it along. Thus am I…A Feather on the Breath of God
If aliens ever landed on the Earth, thinks Chia Han-Leon, we should not burden them with politicians, try to compare technologies, greet them with guns, X-philes, etc. We should simply sing them our 12th century songs. If that doesn’t work, then we push the politicians to the front.