By Gabriel Prynn, cellist
Postmodernism and spiritual minimalism
The corpus of contemporary works that revisit the music of the past, often by reworking them in some way, is quite considerable. It complies with an approach that is often described as postmodernism, which suggests that we are dealing with a movement that was born after modernism itself, as it was defined by certain post-war composers such as Boulez and Stockhausen, and represents a direct reaction to it.
This is true, but postmodernism in music is more an attitude than a style. Irony is often much in evidence, as is a tendency to question the traditionally received boundaries between so-called art music and popular music. Postmodernism in music frequently incorporates contradictions.
A return to melody, the use of repetition (a radical departure from the principles of serialism as established by Schoenberg) and a predilection for quotation and collage are primary features.
In Sinfonia by Luciano Berio (1968) for example, which contains direct musical quotations from such diverse composers as Bach, Schoenberg, Beethoven, Mahler, Brahms and Boulez, the mood is decidedly playful. Other works of the genre take on a far more reverential, even nostalgic tone.
The Mozart-Adagio for piano trio by Arvo Pärt (1992) belongs to the latter category. The piece was written in memory of Oleg Kagan, who was a friend of Arvo Pärt and one of the leading Russian violinists.
Kagan had a particular affinity with the music of Mozart and the composer immortalizes him here by transcribing one of the most touching movements of Mozart’s youthful sonatas, the Adagio from the Sonata in F major, K.280.
Pärt’s music stays true to the principles of what is sometimes referred to as spiritual minimalism, that is to say a compositional approach which deliberately operates within a restricted melodic, harmonic or tonal palette, often in soft dynamics, thereby evoking a prayer, an intimate chant or a distant song. Gorecki’s Third Symphony is another good example of this style. As for Pärt’s Mozart-Adagio, the interval of a minor second returns with insistence in the original Mozart movement.
Lamenting the loss of his friend, Arvo Pärt uses this dissonance in such a way that it seems to become a symbol of the pain that penetrates the entire piece.
A religious sentiment in music – from the Middle Ages to modern times
Born in 1098 in Bermersheim in western Germany (her ancestors were local barons), Hildegard von Bingen was entrusted to the Benedictine nuns of Disibodenberg at the age of eight. At fifteen, she received the nun’s veil, and at thirty-eight was elected abbess (in 1136). Note that at that time to be confined to a cell for life in order to devote oneself to God was considered a privilege, and was usually reserved for girls of noble families.
Despite her confinement to the convent Hildegard von Bingen enjoyed extraordinary prestige during her lifetime thanks to her visions, which she collected in three main books: Know the ways of the Lord, which presents Christian doctrine through allegories; the Book of Merits, a moral work supported by a rich symbolic imagery; and the Book of divine works, which is more scientific in nature. Hildegard had extensive knowledge, accompanied by a strong, independent personality. She has left us more than three hundred energetic and farsighted letters, which were exchanged with great figures of her time including the pope and the emperor.
Hildegard composed over seventy liturgical chants, hymns and sequences. Her vocal works form together the collection Symphonia harmoniae celestium revelationum (Symphony of the harmony of celestial revelations). Their originality has led many recent vocal ensembles to programme them, sometimes juxtaposing them with contemporary works.
For our concert we decided to revive this ancient music by transcribing the beautiful song O Viriditas digiti Dei (O green fingers of God), a work for female voices traditionally accompanied by a drone on the vielle (a medieval violin), to the modern violin, supported by pre-recorded sounds.
This song was a tribute to Disibod, the Irish monk of the seventh century of whom Hildegard was the biographer.
On May 28th 2012 Pope Benedict proclaimed Hildegard von Bingen a Doctor of the Church (« equivalent canonization« ), making her only the fourth woman Doctor of the Catholic Church in history, after Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila and Thérèse of Lisieux.
You can delight in the complete musical art of St. Hildegard thanks to the recordings issued by the ensemble Sequentia in 1998, to mark the 900th anniversary of her birth. They cover the whole of her musical output:
In 2009 a film by German director Margarethe von Trotta was released entitled Vision – of the life of Hildegard of Bingen, inspired by her remarkable story.