Garmarna: Hildegard von Bingen

Hildegard von Bingen
MassProduction Music Network

Garmarna may add more fuel to the ongoing dialogues about authenticity in musical presentation with their latest endeavor, Hildegard von Bingen . This album is an adventurous leap for Garmarna, a well-known and respected folk-music group from Sweden. With this outing, the group reinterprets the 12th century liturgical music of Hildegard von Bingen, a visionary Rhineland nun whose creative output transformed her into one of the most celebrated figures of the Middle Ages. In addition to being deeply involved in politics and diplomacy, von Bingen was also an abbess, philosopher, playwright, poetess, naturalist, healer, mystic, companion of angels, and composer. Today, von Bingen is probably best remembered for her music. For the 21st century audience, Garmarna added the programming skills of Eric S, something of a “houseking” in Sweden to the blend. As improbable an experiment as this may seem, the overall collaboration succeeds beyond what any could have anticipated, unlikely elements combining into an extremely listenable and moving performance.

On matters concerning the philosophy that permeated Hildegard von Bingen’s music, it might be wise to listen a bit to Ralph Metzner. He believes von Bingen to be one of the rare individuals of Western consciousness who saw that spirit was not at all separate from nature. According to Metzner, von Bingen believed that music is of the whole spirit and body and the means of recapturing the original joy and beauty of creation. For von Bingen, who spoke of “writing, seeing, hearing, and knowing, all in one manner”, the whole purpose of music was to carry us closer to the divine. She was, after all, praying when she composed and sang her liturgies. Metzner reminds us that Hildegard von Bingen who had her first vision at the age of three later “spoke of viriditas — the ‘greenness’, as the creative power of God manifest throughout the Creation. Hildegard said that ‘the soul is in the body the way the sap is in the tree’ — in other words, the soul nourishes and sustains the body, instead of having to rise above it or struggle against it.”

On matters concerning the music of Hildegard von Bingen, it might be wise to listen also to what Christopher Page has to say. Page (by day a philologist at Cambridge) is perhaps one of those most responsible for the current resurgence of von Bingen’s music during the past two decades. His original labor of love resulted in A Feather on the Breath of God , a record released first in 1981. Produced on shoestring financing for a small English label, Page’s album was the vehicle that carried von Bingen’s music to the top of the Billboard classical charts. With the approach of von Bingen’s 900th birthday in 1998, his CD was again released to renewed popularity.

In between times, von Bingen’s music was given many treatments, from Medieval-music specialists like Sequentia and Anonymous 4 to the windchimes and temple bells of the new age set. As could be predicted, the aversion of purists to the latter modern interpretation grew in proportion to the many recent new age renderings. Page finally vented his frustration to classical music critic Bernard D. Sherman. Page famously said it might be best if Hildegard von Bingen were just “put on ice” for awhile. With the release of this record by a Swedish group on a label dedicated to Nordic music, Page got part of his wish.

We may suspect how some traditionalists might regard Garmarna’s modern production techniques, creating a contemporary electronic environment to surround von Bingen. Garmarna’s medieval hurdy-gurdy and traditional e-bow is mixed with guitars, strings, and a bit of housebeat. But historians don’t even know if von Bingen used instruments to accompany her music. Historians do know that she upheld the use of instruments, considering them a means to soften the heart and direct it towards God. In fact, she allocated a special function and meaning to certain instruments. Strings correspond to the early condition of the soul struggling towards the light, the sound stirring the heart’s emotions and leading to repentance. The organ is capable of playing harmonies, so for von Bingen the instrument helps create community. In Garmarna’s hands, we have use of the traditional Swedish violin and organ-like hurdy-gurdy, their approach is respectful rather than shallow and the arrangement works.

Assuredly, there will be those who comment on the vocalist’s pronunciation of the Latin lyrics softened by her natural Swedish accent, rather than using historically proper Germanic Latin diction. If a grammatical anachronism, this small fault is easily overlooked given the clear, soaring splendor of Emma Hardelin’s solo voice, and the end result is quite charming.

To become more forgiving of Garmarna, if not be won over entirely, all anyone really has to do is listen to their breathtaking rendition of “Virdissima Virga (The Greenest Branch)”. The arching melody, carried by a clear soprano voice, manages to easily ascend two and a half octaves. To understand the clarity and brilliance of the voice, imagine the sunlight reflecting through a flower carved from near transparent glacier ice. In the background, the stings periodically become dronelike and impart an ancient feel that is occasionally haunting, their slight shadow enhancing the brightness of the vocal. The instrumentation is not always soft, but often with an edge, driven by programmed beats.

Easy to imagine soulful hipsters in motion with this music, moving towards contemplation of better things when listening to this. Already a hit with from everyone from Billboard to the edgy, intelligent Wired crowd all of whom describe the album as mesmerizing, others are left only to say this is not easily forgettable music. I am sufficiently enraptured to explore the music of Garmarna’s other four albums, while Garmarna’s Hildegard von Bingen will be devoted permanent space in my home.