Gregorian chant was largely an anonymously composed body of music, synthesized from Roman and Carolingian sources and notated in countless variants in a manuscript tradition ranging over several centuries. All throughout its history, the body of what we call Gregorian chant was being augmented, by the ornamentation of new texts and music, both monophonic and polyphonic. One noteworthy composer whose name we know, among many others whose names we do not know, was the German abbess called Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). She was the tenth daughter of a wealthy noble family, and like many in her position she was given to the religious life as a child. At that point in European history, a sort of "noble track" had developed in the monastic life, a stratification that Hildegard continued by founding her own monastery, Saint Rupertsberg in Bingen, where she presided over nuns all from privileged backgrounds.
Celestial Harmonies (Hildegard von Bingen, responsories and antiphons from Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum), Oxford Camerata, J. Summerly
(released May 27, 2008)
So it is hardly surprising that she was a well-educated person, who wrote on a remarkable range of topics. What was unusual was that she claimed to be a visionary, recording her visions for future generations. (The neuropsychologist Oliver Sacks has described the character of Hildegard's visions as being typically sympomatic of migraine hallucinations.) Her music, however, is fairly typical of the new chant composed in the 12th and 13th centuries, exploiting expanding notions of the tessitura available to singers and a broadly melismatic style. She has been singled out for special attention, in textbooks and extensive recordings, as a poster child for the history of women composers. So much the better for those of us who love to listen to Gregorian chant.
Eight singers of the Oxford Camerata present a purely monophonic performance, as it should be. The four female voices sound more unified, flexible, and in tune, as well as somehow better suited to the soaring upper-range passages. This should come as no surprise, since like most chant composers, Hildegard was writing for herself and the voices of the sisters she knew well, although there is certainly nothing wrong with men singing her music. Conductor Jeremy Summerly (no other editor or performing edition is mentioned) has made some unusual choices in how to render the melodies rhythmically, differentiating long from short notes (2 vs. 1 beat) but also including some subdivided notes (½ beat). What sound like dotted notes may raise some eyebrows. Still, it is a good introduction to Hildegard's music, at a low Naxos price, if not a must-have, even for chant fanatics.