Today’s post was written in collaboration with my good friend and colleague, Dr. Katie Gardiner, the Interim Director of Choirs at the College of the Holy Cross, a Hildegard scholar, and self-described “Hildegard big time super fan.”
When you think of pieces for treble choir, the monophonic works of Hildegard von Bingen might not be on the top of your list, but they should be! Her music way to introduce medieval music to your ensembles and audiences with pieces accessible to high school, church, community, and collegiate treble choirs. She’s not only a super awesome female composer to share with your choir, but she was at times subversive and a leader in a time when there were serious limitations on how women could participate in any sort of leadership role.
Here are some pieces to get you started. I’ve selected recordings of different artists to give you ideas of varying performance options. Running times are variable depending on your performance choices.
Aer enim volat
Running time: 2’30”
Range: one octave
Running time: 2’
Range: a ninth
O rubor sanguinis
Running time: 2’
Range: one octave plus a third
Recording: The Hildegard Singers
O nobilissima viriditas
Running time: 4’30”
Range: one octave plus a fifth*
Recording: The Rose Ensemble
*Do not be alarmed with how seemingly high this piece goes. You can change the starting pitch to whatever range might fit your ensemble.
Hildegard von Bingen (ca. 1098-1179) is generally the first named composer (a person attributed to their compositions) we think of in Western classical music. We know her for her compositions, but she also created many scientific and medical writings, and many people also consider her to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany (so technically a woman in STEM!).
Hildegard was a Benedictine abbess – the head of an abbey of nuns – and a mystic. She claimed that she has “visions” (now believed to be ocular migraines) from God or of divine inspiration; this helps her gain credibility and power within the church. Hildegard also claimed that she was uneducated, yet her visions were modeled on Old Testament prophets. Her works were sung in the convent and she was widely respected in her time.
The quality of Hildegard’s music is the primary reason we study her as musicians, but she was an extraordinary person who lived an incredible life and contributed to a body of knowledge in many different disciplines. She was sought after for advice from some of the most powerful people in the world. She was a woman of extraordinary conviction, artistry, and knowledge. She had incredible leadership skills. And she went on preaching tours into her 70s. Think about that for a moment: a woman in her 70s in the medieval era riding around hundreds of miles to preach when women were not permitted to preach in public. There are wonderful opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration if you study Hildegard’s music, as she was also an artist, poet, preacher, exorcist, healer, writer, visionary, scientist, playwright…
Here are some pedagogical reasons that you should consider singing Hildegard with your SA choir:
- Because these pieces are in unison, they are good for building a unified ensemble sound. They are also a good opportunity to work on tuning – just intonation (wider fifths, lower thirds and sevenths) is preferable.
- The phrases are often long and irregular, giving you an opportunity to work on breath control and to teach musicality and phrase shaping.
- They’re in Latin and they’re melismatic, which means many opportunities to work on vowel clarity.
- The melodies are highly challenging, sometimes spanning over an octave, which gives your ensemble opportunities to work on navigating different parts of the treble range. They also get to experience singing in modes.
- There are many different ways one can perform these pieces, allowing for possible solo opportunities and/or instrumental collaboration. Our singers can also have the opportunity to participate in the creative process!
- Unaccompanied, monophonic medieval melodies will be something fresh and unique in our programming. Plus, our singers get to sing something from the medieval era which is often reserved for small ensembles and specialists.
Katie’s Rehearsal Process
Katie used the following process with high school treble singers at Interlochen this past summer.
- We started by singing the mode on solfege and playing around with that, having half sing the final and the others sing the mode then switching, or creating a drone and having singers sing the mode. You could take it a step further and have a singer improvise within the mode with others holding a drone, or you or another singer could sing short melodic cells (improvised or derived from the piece) and have singers echo you, with or without the drone.
- We sang through the piece on solfege to get the pitch content; sometimes I’d have them echo me. For adding the text, I’d speak the text, speak it and have them repeat it, sing it on a monotone with the rhythm. Sometimes I’d just model a phrase and have them repeat it.
- We played around a lot with the piece, trying it with a drone, or with a voice remaining on the final and singing the text parallel. We also had an organ drone and our player would improvise modal cells at certain cadential moments.
- For those truly great recordings (Sequentia), the singers I spoke with in the ensembles said they just spent a tremendous amount of rehearsal time finding the rhythm and tempo together. With younger students, it was helpful to provide specific musical information (and model) to get the desired result: crescendo here, go faster here, etc.
If you plan on conducting the piece with your ensemble, mark in big phrases (lines of text, melismas, “cadence” points) for shaping and breaths, and then small phrases – groups of two and three notes – for conducting. Spend a lot of time singing while conducting to feel the most natural phrase shaping. You might find that your groups of two and three change as you get more comfortable in this process, or that it might be easier just to show lines and phrase shapes with your ensemble. If your ensemble is small, you might consider not conducting them at all!
Let us know if you decide to explore Hildegard or have ever tried a Hildegard piece with your ensemble!
- International Society of Hildegard von Bingen Studies – includes texts, transcriptions, recordings, and links to the Dendermonde and Riesencodex manuscripts.
- A Conductor’s Guide to the Music of Hildegard von Bingen by Katie Gardiner
By the way, in case you were wondering, St. Hildegard von Bingen, composer, writer, abbess, and mystic, is – in fact – still dead. There is a Facebook page, followed by over 17,000 people, dedicated to daily updates as to her status among the living, linked here for the curious.
Dr. Katie Gardiner is the Interim Director of Choirs at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA where she conducts the College Choir and Chamber Singers.
Dr. Hana J. Cai is a conductor, pianist, and singer based in Ithaca, NY. She is currently on faculty at Ithaca College where she conducts the Ithaca College Chorus and Treble Chorale.
If you would like to contribute to the blog with any questions or wisdom or pieces to share, I’d love to hear from you! Feel free to write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.