11,000 VIRGINS: Chants for th Feast of St. Ursula

Sep 24, 1997 at 12:00 am
This disc's title is a deft marketing stroke, guaranteed to garner attention. Fair is fair: Pop has its 10,000 Maniacs and classical music has its 11,000 Virgins. Notwithstanding the catchy name, the music on this disc by the 12th-century nun, Hildegard von Bingen, is altogether entrancing.

Known as a mystic, healer, poet and composer, von Bingen (1098-1179) was largely unschooled as a musician. Still, her music was far from mundane. Wide, unexpected leaps characterize her music, which was composed at a time when chants rarely strayed beyond a narrow melodic scope. She also had a penchant for embellishing the vocal line in unusual places where unadorned writing was the norm.

To listen to this recording, it appears that von Bingen was especially inspired by the cult of St. Ursula. According to legend, in the 4th century Ursula traveled the seas on pilgrimages with 11 ships, each filled with 1,000 virgin acolytes. Ursula was martyred when she refused to marry a Hun leader. It's unclear how many of her followers were also killed (or even if there were anywhere near 11,000), but a church was built in their honor in Cologne, Germany.

Von Bingen's music goes beyond being merely reverential and crosses into the realm of the transcendental. The gorgeous responsory, "Spiritui sancto," is at once mystical and haunting. Her poetry, too, is particularly colorful in "Favus distillans," permeated with sensuous longing ("A dripping honeycomb was the virgin Ursula, who longed to embrace the lamb of God, milk and honey under her tongue"), while the lyrics to the story of Ursula's martyrdom in "O Ecclesia" reach lofty Alpine heights. Works of other composers who wrote chants for the Feast of St. Ursula (Sept. 17) are also included, but they aren't on the same plane as von Bingen's rhapsodic inventions.

Chant has been all the rage in the last few years, although some recordings have been blemished by sloppy pitches and soupy articulation. That clearly isn't the case here.

The women of Anonymous 4, who specialize in medieval music, do a superlative job. Their diction is bell-like, their intonation pure and their feeling for the music almost tangible. Harmonia Mundi's sound is flawless.

George Bulanda writes about music for the Metro Times. E-Mail [email protected].