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22

Dec

2011

From chant to polyphony

By Stephen J. Nereffid. Posted in A History of Classical Music, Classical | No Comments »

A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 2

Hildegard of Bingen: “A feather on the breath of God”. Gothic Voices/Christopher Page. Hyperion (link)

It’s ironic that the first featured composer in this history should be a woman, given the regrettable absence of women from the ranks of the “great”, or even the “reasonably well known”, composers. Hildegard (1098-1179) was a remarkable woman of her time: an abbess and visionary who corresponded with rulers and popes, toured Germany as a preacher, and produced numerous literary works on religion, medicine, and natural history. She has been an inspiration for feminists and the New Age movement, as well as the subject of four attempts at canonization in the two centuries after her death. In the 1150s, Hildegard collected several dozen of her poems in the work Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (Symphony of the harmony of celestial revelations), which survives today in two manuscripts that also provide monophonic musical notation. The compositions are mostly antiphons and responsories for the office, as well as some sequences for the mass and a few hymns. Hildegard’s music isn’t based on plainchant and makes use of a small number of melodic patterns that show up in many pieces; it also tends to have a high ambitus (the range of notes in a given piece), which gives it a soaring quality that matches well with the visionary nature of the poems. Hildegard’s fame as a composer is only a recent phenomenon: Gothic Voices’ hugely successful 1982 release was one of the first recordings of her music, though there have been many more since then. Her popularity may give the wrong impression that Hildegard was the only significant composer of her day; the reality of course is that she was just one among many others who weren’t so fortunate as to have their names and biographies preserved for future centuries.

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10

Dec

2011

Gregorian Chant

By Stephen J. Nereffid. Posted in A History of Classical Music, Classical | No Comments »

A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 1.

Chant. Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos. EMI

In May 1994, something extraordinary happened: a compilation of recordings made a decade or two earlier by a group of monks in a monastery in northern Spain reached #3 on the Billboard album charts, having already been a big hit in other countries. The Gregorian chant sung by these monks and their brethren for well over a millennium is the oldest music in the classical tradition, and it remains alive in Catholic rituals today. Listeners to the Chant album were drawn by the music’s promise to, as the sleeve notes put it, “bathe the weary, worldly, unsuspecting soul in its blessing”. Certainly there’s no denying the soothing effect of those long, rhythm-free melodic lines, but this somewhat misses the point that chant’s original intended audience was as much God Himself as exhausted yuppies or their medieval equivalent. Although Gregorian chant gets its name from Pope Gregory I, who reigned from 590 to 604 C.E., the music had its origins in earlier centuries. Psalmody was a key feature of Jewish worship, but not of early Christianity, and it wasn’t until the development of monastic life in the fourth century that Christian psalmody appeared, in the monks’ and nuns’ night vigils. Later, psalmodic chanting was reorganized to be spread across the entire day, in a series of seven “offices”, as well as in the daily mass. Chant has a rather arbitrary track listing, so to get a better picture of chant being sung in its proper devotional context we must look elsewhere.

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