Thursday, September 18, 2008

Journal Response: Hildegard of Bingen

During the 12th century, when Hildegard of Bingen lived, the Church allowed women to do an insignificant amount of daily tasks. Convents, where women could do things that were usually for men only, such as sing during Mass services and hold positions of leadership, had only women. Hildegard of Bingen not only held a position of power at a convent, but she also composed numerous works consisting of antiphons, responsories, and she even wrote both the words and music to her pieces. Also, women who were nuns at the convent sang the music. Her composition of both the words and music are worthy of note because men rarely wrote both words and music that during this time, so for a woman to do so was extraordinary. Hildegard possessed other talents besides her gift to compose. She is also a visionary, which means she had revelations from God. She wrote religious poems, prose, and books besides her music.

Her divinely inspired music is sometimes puzzling for modern ensembles to play since it leaves much open for interpretation. The group, Sequentia, that recorded this CD, was willing to try their take on Hildegard of Bingen’s work. Using only women’s voices, fiddle and harp, the group manages to capture the simplistic beauty of Hildegard’s composition. The
Canticles of Ecstasy, features 16 tracks that last a little longer than an hour. Most of these pieces are antiphonally sung which means they have choirs that alternate singing, but some pieces are responsorially sung meaning they have a soloist and a choir. The instruments mainly provide a drone under the singing, except in the instrumental piece in which the harp and fiddle play together. This piece has much more rhythmic movement than the rest of the CD, probably because it is not chant, like all the vocal pieces.

Because Hildegard wrote mostly in chant, the rhythmic patterns are not exceedingly difficult. While the music is pretty and soothing, the lack of quick movement is boring and I wish there were more rhythmic variation. I realize that during this time, this style is what writers used. In spite of the rhythm that I found boring, Hildegard did use a technique that was uncommon and made these chants more pleasing to my ears. The large leaps provide more interest to the melody; they also employ much more of the range of the voice than was common for this era. Because of these characteristics, most of these pieces do not fit the definition of the genre of a typical chant, which would ordinarily move in step-wise motion. In Victoria’s blog, I enjoyed how she brought up this point of skips. She mentioned that it was difficult for the singers to sing this music because they would be bouncing back and forth between head and chest voice in the same measure. This is something that, even though I am a vocalist, I would never have thought of without reading this blog. Also, I do agree that when listening to this music, it is moderately easy to picture a mystical realm; nevertheless, this is not enough to redeem the music for me. The text is fairly profound and moving, but I concentrate more on what I hear right away rather than what I must look up and think about, and it simply did not catch my attention. I certainly admire Hildegard for all her accomplishments in her life, but for me, I will not be a regular listener of her music.

Because Hildegard is an approved visionary of the Church, the way I see this collection is greatly impacted. She believed that God inspired all her compositions. This can relate to earlier theories about m usic. Boethius and Pythagoras believed that there were three levels of music. First, was the musica instrumentalis, which is the name for the vocal and instrumental music. Next, was the musica humana, which had to do with the symmetry of the body and soul. Finally, the highest form of music was musica mundana that was God and the stars singing. If we believe that Hildegard was divinely stimulated to write her music, then that would be the lowest and highest levels of music uniting. In this way, her music is not only enjoyable for listening; this music is God’s and that makes it better than all things. I highly respect this music because of its background, but even with that admiration, I cannot bring myself to be a die-hard fan of it.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Listening Journal 1a- Cantigas de Santa Maria

King Alfonso X, also known as Alfonso el Sabio (the Wise or the Learned), is not remembered for his military conquests or his great acquisitions of land, but instead for the historical impact he had on Spanish music (Sage, “Cantiga”). Alfonso was a great patron of science, art and culture. He supervised the compilation of the Cantigas of Santa Maria. As Jack Sage writes, the Cantigas de Santa Maria is “one of the great artistic achievements of the Middle Ages.” This set of 420 songs is not merely a group of pretty tunes; it reveals many aspects of medieval life to listeners today.
The CD, Alfonso X: Cantigas De Santa Maria, recorded by the Unicorn Ensemble, includes ten of the cantigas and lasts about one hour. The instruments, language, modes, meter, and monophony all define this work as from the Medieval period. The listener hears instruments that were used during this era such as percussion instruments, recorders, flutes, bagpipes, harps, the shawm, the hurdy-gurdy, the rebec and finally the human voice. The Unicorn Ensemble decided to use these instruments not through guessing, but based on the four beautifully illustrated manuscripts of the "Cantigas" that are extant. Three manuscripts even include musical notation. The ensemble, along with many other musicians, was able to see the instruments used in performing these songs. The language of the cantigas is Portuguese-Galician, a fascinating use for two reasons: First, the songs are sacred in subject manner, but they are not in Latin, the language of the Catholic Church. Secondly, Portuguese-Galician was not the vernacular of the people in Alfonso's kingdom; the language was Castilian. Poets preferred to write in Portuguese-Galician because they found it more lyrical.
In addition to the oddity of language, there are also musical ones. Many of these pieces are in the Dorian or Mixolydian modes. [watch that you always transition smoothly between subjects and that new subjects are given new paragraphs] Modes are scales with varying arrangements of half and whole steps and both sacred and secular music from the Medieval period use four (the Dorian, Lydian, Mixolydian, and Phrygian). The meter of these songs varies; at times it is in duple, other times it is in triple, and some songs even use both. Because Alfonso X compiled this set of cantigas during the Medieval era, it is worthy of note that songs about Mary, the Mother of God, use the duple meter. Musicians thought that triple meter was perfect, because it was like the Trinity, and duple meter was imperfect because it was not like the Trinity. Because of this way of thinking, one would assume that Mary would only receive songs in triple meter. She doesn’t, however, which leads us to believe that at this point in the 13th century, not everyone followed the strict mindset of the Church. During this time, life revolved around the Church. There was a lot of disease, suffering, and death, so the Church's views on eternal life were sometimes all that common people had to offer hope. This is why even their meter related to God. The monophonic or single line of music is also a common musical characteristic of the Medieval period. Instead of being polyphonic or having many independent voices, this music has one melodic line. It can be doubled in unison or at octaves and sometimes, because of instruments like the bagpipe, it can have a drone. Finally, the form of most of these pieces are virelais. Virelai form is ABBA and is one of the three formes fixes, the other two being the ballade and the rondeau. These forms became extremely popular in 14th and 15th century France, so these Spanish 13th century virelais are a predecessor of what was to come. Most of the songs have a clear refrain or “A” section which repeats after contrasting sections.
Before this history class, I had never heard of Alfonso X or this collection. Initially, I chose this album because it grabbed my attention. I am Catholic and the Virgin Mary therefore is someone I admire, much as Alfonso and the writers of the Cantigas venerated her. Not all tracks on this CD are songs. Some are instrumental and others are poems that are recited while music is playing. Reading the liner notes and a few of the translations, I came to enjoy the texts that these songs use, especially as they are not the same that we would sing today about Mary. Some, like track five, are similar to modern-day hymns about Mary, but others, like, “Quen serve Santa Maria” surprise me. This is nothing like what I would imagine hearing in church today. In this song, a man kills his unfaithful wife and asks Mary for help. I know Mary is merciful, but this is extreme.
Overall, I was glad that I chose Cantigas de Santa Maria for my listening journal because I was able to learn a lot about one of the most historically important pieces for Spanish Medieval music. Not only this, but I track enjoyed most of the tracks, especially 3, “Instrumental CSM 259.” The constant drone of the hurdy-gurdy is haunting and beautiful. This music makes me feel many things, and makes me able to relate with the Greeks on their theory of ethos. Also, listening to track 4, I can picture myself dancing in King Alfonso’s court. The meter is strong in this piece, but it also has slower sections, which makes me imagine the people stopping and listening to the poem of Mary’s miracle. Some of the melodies used here may have been taken from secular songs and applied to these texts (Sage, “Cantiga”). In this, I imagine Alfonso X was trying to make these cantigas more popular, an endeavor in which he succeeded as I find them melodic and catchy and their repetitiveness makes them easy to remember. Had I been living in the 13th century near the Iberian Peninsula, I’m sure they would’ve caught my fancy.

Jack Sage. "Cantiga." In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, (accessed September 10, 2008).

Nigel Wilkins. “Virelai.” In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, (accessed September 10, 2008).

Latham, Alison. "Cantigas de Santa Maria." In The Oxford Companion to Music, edited by Alison Latham. Oxford Music Online, (accessed September 10, 2008).