DE ANGELIS for mezzo-soprano, three contraltos, SATB choir and drones. On texts and music by Hildegard of Bingen. 1999. Commissioned by the Toronto Chamber Choir with funds from the Ontario Arts Council and the City of Toronto through the Toronto Arts Council. 26 minutes. Score and parts available through PROMETHEAN EDITIONS.
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Laura Pudwell, mezzo-soprano.
The Toronto Chamber Choir,
The Amadeus Choir,
David Fallis, conductor.
CBC Broadcast Recording.
Commissioned by the Toronto Chamber Choir with the assistance of the Ontario and the Toronto Arts Councils, De Angelis is based on the antiphon ‘O gloriosissimi lux vivens angeli’ by Hildegard of Bingen, the twelfth century mystic, poet and composer. Hildegard was a remarkable woman whose life and work has been a source of fascination for me as it has been for thousands of people (in recent years she has become a celebrity after eight centuries of relative obscurity). The work is dedicated to another remarkable woman, Angela Horner and her husband Keith. Angela was seriously ill as a result of a series of strokes during the early months of 1999 and she was very much in my mind during the composition of De Angelis.
My setting of ‘O gloriosissimi’ includes within it Hildegard’s entire setting of her own texts. This setting is used as the focal point from which my music departs and returns on various occasions throughout the composition. A great deal of my music either derives directly from Hildegard’s or follows tangents that have been set off by the text. Hildegard’s music and text are at the core of my own compositional engagement: In De Angelis I may occasionally deviate from the music, but never from her text, which is the determining factor for my compositional choices in this work.
My interest in Hildegard is not just musical or literary. There are aspects of her theology that resonate very strongly with the present and with me personally. Two of these in particular have inspired the music of De Angelis: (1) the feminine elements invested in Hildegard’s vision of the divine and of the centerpiece of the Christian Faith, the Holy Trinity, and (2) the concept of the ultimate redemption of Lucifer which is alluded to towards the end of ‘O gloriosissimi’. Even though clearly discernible in retrospect, the musical treatment of these two elements was not planned in advance. Like everything else about this composition, these elements formed into recognizable entities by themselves, and it was only after I had written a significant portion of De Angelis that I ‘saw’ them ‘staring’ at me through the pages of my own work. From that moment of understanding, the composition of De Angelis turned into a kind of a theological discourse through sound.
This type of discourse is of particular interest to me. I am adverse to textual creeds, because I feel that text by nature limits its subject matter and creates a dangerous substitution in the minds of the readers. For example, I wonder how many Christians today do not actually worship a ‘textual’ God, a god who comes to them through textual definitions provided by the Creed, the gospels, and the other sacred texts of each denomination. Moreover, I wonder to what extent this ‘textual’ God does not replace the ‘actual’ God in a worshiper’s mind, as the sacred texts become more ‘sacred’ in one's religious practice. Music too is a language, but it is a language that has no fixed and mutually agreed upon vocabulary and syntax. In this sense music is particularly suited not only for metaphor but also for direct affect: it can convey great truths through sound without the need to define these truths and therefore limit them to the extend that spoken and written language do—with the possible exception of poetry, of course. Music can manifest truth either directly or through 'transposition', the same way parables and poetry can, whereas theology is trapped in textual semantics. As a result of this, it comes up against paradoxes similar to those reached by a variety of disciplines—scientific and/or otherwise—that depend on textual models of description to convey to the uninitiated the truths they claim to reveal.
De Angelis started out as a work for mezzo-soprano, choir and multitrack digital tape playback that incorporated processed recordings of Hildegard’s antiphon and various drone-like sounds. For the better part of two months I kept encountering insurmountable—and, to some extent, unexplainable—problems with the technology, and experienced a writer’s block, which prevented me from embarking on the composition of the work beyond the level of ‘sketches’, none of which were particularly satisfactory. Finally, I decided to dispense with the electroacoustic component altogether and add three contraltos and drones (offstage voices, crystal glasses, etc.) which would replace the electronics. I also decided to place the contraltos at the back of the church to achieve spatial distribution of sound similar to what the multitrack diffusion system would have provided. From that moment on, De Angelis literally ‘wrote itself’ at a speed which set—for me at least—a new record. It felt as if there was a desire independent from me for this work to go in a certain direction, and that the music would not flow out of me, unless I allowed this desire to take control of the creative process.
The three contraltos initially sing only fragments of Hildegard’s ‘O gloriosissimi’, which is sung in its entirety by the soloist positioned in front of the choir. These fragments are echoed from the back of the church by this female trinity supported by the various drone voices and instruments. This lasts for the better part of ten minutes where the text deals principally with the adoration of angels. At the end of this section, and as Hildegard’s focus shifts from the adoration of angels to Lucifer, the fallen angel of old, the music experiences a significant transformation. It shifts from musical idioms that adhere to a Medieval paradigm to idioms, which can be collectively described as the Renaissance paradigm.
I should digress here momentarily to explain what I mean by the term “Renaissance paradigm”. Beyond the era we commonly understand as the Renaissance in music, the Renaissance paradigm encompasses a far greater era of western music history starting with the advent of polyphony and ending with the avant-garde of the nineteen fifties. Many theologians and psychologists—Carl Jung among them—view the Renaissance paradigm as a time of spiritual regression. I believe that to a large extent this is a medieval interpretation of the Renaissance—therefore a regression in itself—which has gained momentum in recent years due to our millennial preoccupation with vast time spans, vaster than anything we have been historically accustomed to dealing with.
This having been said, there is no doubt that the Renaissance and its subsequent fruition has been a time of rebellion against ecclesiastical authority and, in this sense at least, post-medieval music is symbolically an apt metaphor for the rebellion of Lucifer against God. Consistent with the Christian position, Lucifer is described by Hildegard as a fallen angel (“perdito angelo”). But her description of the process before, during and after the fall points in directions that are arguably inconsistent with orthodox creed. By presenting Lucifer as the angel who desired to fly where no one had flown before, Hildegard presents him as the explorer, not the adversary, one who challenges our limitations and tries to surpass them. He is closer to the Greek Prometheus than to the Prince of Darkness of medieval theology. By extension, he is closer to every one of us, the dreamer in us. Trying to fly above the pinnacle of God (“pinnaculum Dei”) conjures images of Edmund Hillary attempting to reach the summit of Mt. Everest or the Wright brothers trying to fly the first airplane rather than Medieval images of Hell and its contents. The final two lines of Hildegard’s poem are enigmatic and not easily decipherable, but they too allude to the Greek myth. Prometheus was banished by the gods for revealing to humans the secret of fire and its use (the name “Lucifer”, the light bearer, points to this Promethean connection). Hildegard speaks about Lucifer’s fall furnishing “instruments” (“sed ipsius instrumenta casus”) and alludes that the fall itself was the beginning of the rise of humanity as a whole. In this sense the fall was like the gathering of experience which at redemption is offered back as consciousness to God who is the source of all experience. The fall and redemption of Lucifer is like the parable of the Prodigal Son, whose banishment is self-imposed and whose redemption is self-motivated.
Back to De Angelis, at the point where the text speaks of the fallen angel, my music departs for the first time from the pervasive phrygian mode (on E) of Hildegard’s antiphon. It begins to travel to different tonal regions and the stylistic references span the entire era of the Renaissance paradigm: modal becomes tonal and increasingly chromatic. The transition is scored for the mezzo soprano soloist and the choir and this gives an opportunity to the three contraltos to slowly move to the front of the church and place themselves behind the soloist and in front of the choir. Along with this relocation from back to front, the music of the three contraltos undergoes significant transformation: Their distant echoes and fragments of Hildegard’s music which up until this point reached the audience indirectly (from the back and through ambiance) have given way to full fledged singing of original music which attempts to interpret Hildegard’s text and—for a time— manages to steal the spotlight away from the soloist. The allegory is clear: the mezzo soprano stands for Hildegard herself and sings mostly Hildegard’s music throughout the work; the choir is the congregation of the faithful who respond to Hildegard’s music. Finally the three contraltos are a female trinity which before the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance remains in a nascent state: unconscious, addressing the spirit, but not yet the intellect (symbolized by the contraltos’ placement at the back of the church). With the emergence of the Renaissance paradigm, the feminine element gradually emerges into consciousness and becomes fully empowered in our days, at the end of the first Christian eon (symbolized by the contraltos’ procession to the front). In De Angelis, this female trinity takes center stage at this point and plays a leading role until the end of the work.
Hildegard’s vision of the world as a continuing creation causes her to view nature as indispensable to the redemption of humanity. Our attitude towards our environment is for Hildegard a measure of our spirituality. This ecological theme—common today, but very rare in her time—is not present in this particular text, but together with the other two themes addressed here make Hildegard a woman and a seer of the present, as relevant to our time as she might have been to hers. Even though she was born before the intellectual explosion we call the Renaissance, her visions, poems and music point to an era beyond the Middle Ages and even the Renaissance, in fact beyond the enantiodromia of the first Christian eon altogether. They point to the new Aquarian age, the dawn of which we are beginning to experience in our days. This—I hope and pray—will be an age of vivid color and understand-ing, beyond theoretical debates, and in contrast to the black and white creeds and disputes of the Piscean age. I envision it—and I believe Hildegard did as well—as the time of the “face to face” encounter, as opposed to two millennia of staring at God “through a glass darkly”.
I wrote earlier about the inadequacy of spoken and written language and the dangers of ‘textual theology'. I should had followed my own advice in this matter and not try to explain what is inexplicable through ordinary language. Perhaps the music of De Angelis will be able to touch the listeners and speak to them with humility and love; in a way that textual theology is rarely able to do.
De Angelis is based on an antiphon by Hildegard of Bingen, a composer Hatzis admires greatly not just for her music but also for her theology. Hatzis's work quotes from and expands upon her "O gloriosissimi lux vivens angeli," and it also mirrors her belief in a central role played by womankind in Christian theology, and her vision of the eventual reconciliation of the fallen angel Lucifer with Christ. Hatzis uses musical and spatial symbolism to illustrate these concepts, and more. The casual listener will not appreciate Hatzis's cleverness, but he or she will appreciate his sincerity and devotion; De Angelis is a strikingly attractive addition to the contemporary choral repertoire. Raymond Tuttle. Classical Net
[De Angelis], for mezzo-soprano (Laura Pudwell), choir and offstage voices, is based on the 12th Century antiphon O gloriosissimi lux vivens angeli by Hildegard of Bingen. This is a very beautiful piece that uses light textural layers and has very limited or cautious dissonances that are tempered by the use of vocal drones. Troy Milleker, THE WHOLE NOTE (Canada). 2003.
De Angelis (1999) is an extended meditation on the antiphon 'O Gloriosissimi Lux Vivens Angeli' by Hildegard von Bingen; Hildegard's tune may eventually be heard in its entirety sung beautifully by vibratoless mezzo Pudwell, while the excellent Elmer Iseler Singers and Amadeus Chamber Singers supply well-rehearsed commentary....The effect is really stunning--Hatzis has created a striking and soulful contribution to the choral literature....superior in its purity and fervent humanity. I recommend giving this a listen. Allen Gimbel. AMERICAN RECORD GUIDE.