Sappho and Hildegard


Taking pride of place on the fine T-shirt of female composers, Sappho is the subject of an engaging Radio 4 programme by Natalie Haynes, both educative and hilarious—I can’t find this episode online at the moment, but here’s the link.

Proceeding in an orderly fashion further down the T-shirt, it was also good this Monday to find Hildegard of Bingen in The Birth of Polyphony on Radio 3’s Composer of the Week:

The tracks are very fine (for further discography, see here), but I don’t quite know how I want such music to sound. Indeed, as Christopher Page commented,

There’s no real reason to think that any of Hildegard’s songs were ever performed at all. Hildegard writes these pieces as acts of prayer in themselves, and exactly what use they were put to, if any use at all, is something that we don’t really know. It’s possible to imagine Hildegard or somebody else humming them or singing them softly in the context of private prayer, for example.

Despite contemporary medieval groups that immerse themselves in medieval sources, and resulting fine “experiments” in vocal style (Jantina Norman, North African, and so on), most recordings sounds exactly what they are—Oxbridge-educated choral singers since the 1970s. And they communicate with the type of audiences that like to hear that kind of thing. Our ears. The problem lies partly in the medium: the acoustic of recording, or concerts.

The modern sound ideal might succinctly be described as virginal, but I’m not sure a 20th-century Oxbridge virgin sounds quite the same as a 12th-century German one. But after Taruskin, we can all relax.

For “The hottest 900-year-old on the charts”, an entertaining and informed review of recordings and performances of her work, featuring the Hildegurls, see here.

3 thoughts on “Sappho and Hildegard

  1. Pingback: The speaking voice | Stephen Jones: a blog

  2. Pingback: Back to black | Stephen Jones: a blog

  3. Pingback: Mary Lou Williams | Stephen Jones: a blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s