Saturday, May 23, 2015

The 12th Century in the 21st: Medieval Women's Choir perform Hildegard's "Ordo Virtutm" at St. James, Seattle

Their angelic voices echoed in the vast cathedral, while bells and mysterious instruments sounded, seemingly from everywhere at once. I could see them singing and playing there, in the intersection of the cross-shaped building – but I heard them from all directions. Such is the acoustics of St. James Cathedral in Seattle.

I had heard a performance of Hildegard von Bingen’s “Ordo Virtutum” once before, several decades ago, and at that time I’d bought the recording of the work by Sequentia (then on vinyl, now on CD and probably vinyl again). The recording had never had the same effect as the live performance, and at this concert last Friday I was able to discern why. Music such as this demands the ambient surround-sound delivered by yawning spaces in immense stone and wood buildings.

Ordo Virtutm is an example of an ancient genre of music known as, well, an “ordo”; somewhere between an opera and an extended morality lesson. Archetypal characters (representing Biblical personages or concepts such as “humility” and “an individual soul”) sing and chant as a bare story line leisurely unfolds. Hildegard’s Ordo is one of the earliest still-extant examples of the genre, and perhaps the closest to its roots in Gregorian chant – though there are some extreme differences in the music which place it as a thoroughly individual conception. The melodies flow, freeform, seemingly uninterested in either rhythm or conventional phrasing. Instruments (harps and early versions of violins) accompany, either heterophonically or as drones. Bells ring at key moments, sometimes multiplying into swarms of chiming tones (one instrument was a set of small hand bells strapped to a rotating wheel). Harmony actually appears at times, centuries before the concept of “chords” – Hildegard seems to have perceived it as a special effect, saved for the most dramatic moments.

The story is a simple one. A soul approaches heaven, guided forward by the Virtues (Knowledge of God, Faith, Fear of God, Hope, Obedience, Victory, Humility, Charity, Castity). A rough voice calls from behind her (not singing, and accompanied by rattling percussion); it is the devil, tempting her to abandon her journey. This she does, briefly, but finds her new direction unsatisfying, and lets the Virtues show her the way to heaven again. The devil vows to fight her, but Victory swoops down and binds him up, and the soul makes her way to heaven.

Such a simple story line, of course, is made more interesting (and dramatic) by the music. Exactly how it would have been performed during Hildegard’s time is not certain. This Seattle group did it with medieval costumes, though lighting effects enhanced both the celestial world of the Virtues and the demonic world of the devil. They played and sung the music enthusiastically, sweetly, and dramatically, despite two missed cues by the percussionists. The overall effect was beautiful, and the story still resonates – proving that this was not only a work for its time but for the ages.

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