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Why I love the Hildegard von Bingen & Galina Ustvolskaya combo

Almost a millennium separates nun Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) from Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya (1919-2006). The former created heavenly chants, the latter hammered on a coffin. Yet on Thursday, February 23, they are together at a concert by the Flemish ensembles Het Collectief and Psallentes at the Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ. Two reasons why I think that's a wonderful combo.

I Personal connection

 - Von Bingen

Hildegard von Bingen was the only woman to come up during my four years of studying musicology. I was immediately captivated by her dashing melodies, which went beyond all the limits of Gregorian chant common in her time.

Having grown up in a place of pilgrimage to the Virgin Mary, her intensely expressed admiration for the mother of Christ moves me.

That she held her own as a woman in a man's world takes me even more for her. She founded two monasteries and corresponded on equal terms with popes, emperors and other dignitaries.

Salient detail: she was the first to write about the female orgasm: 'When a woman makes love to a man, a feeling of heat arises in her brain, triggering sensual pleasure.'

Hildegard von Bingen (c) Wikipedia

- Ustvolskaya

Ustvolskaya I discovered thanks to Reinbert de Leeuw. I was deeply moved by the natural way she combines a piccolo with a tuba, or asks a percussionist to hammer with great feeling on a wooden box.

When the Petersburg recluse suddenly turned up at the Concertgebouw in 1995 after finishing her Third Symphony, I seized my chance. In my best Russian, I praised her work and asked for an interview. After much wrangling, this did/did not happen. My report in Vrij Nederland of the two-hour session in her hotel room marked my breakthrough as a music journalist. It can still be read at her own site.

II Divine inspiration

Although their sound material is totally opposite, the ladies do have common ground. Hildegard von Bingen's meandering melody lines for women's choir sprung from her visions, which she wrote around her 40se into music. She called herself 'a feather on the breath of God', as if she were a conduit of His messages.

Galina Ustvolskaya was also very religious, composing only when she was in a state of 'divine grace'. Her symphonies bear subtitles like 'True, eternal, beatitude', 'Jesus, Messiah, save us', and 'Prayer'.

Both women nurture a very personal connection with God. There is a difference, though. While Ustvolskaya preferred to hear her work in a church, she expressly did not write for liturgical purposes. Von Bingen, on the other hand, composed for the Roman Catholic religious community.

In short, a wonderful combination of medieval devotion and modern spirituality in one concert.

Good to know

I spoke about the programme with De Nieuws BV on Radio 1. Listen here.
During the introduction on 23 February, I speak with Thomas Dieltjens of Het Collectief and Hendrik van den Abeelen of Psallentes.
More info and tickets via this link. 

Thea Derks

Thea Derks studied English and Musicology. In 1996, she completed her studies in musicology cum laude at the University of Amsterdam. She specialises in contemporary music and in 2014 published the critically acclaimed biography 'Reinbert de Leeuw: man or melody'. Four years on, she completed 'An ox on the roof: modern music in vogevlucht', aimed especially at the interested layperson. You buy it here: In 2020, the 3rd edition of the Reinbertbio appeared,with 2 additional chapters describing the period 2014-2020. These also appeared separately as Final Chord.View Author posts

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