in: Reviews

November 15, 2010

Virtues Brought to Life

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Fans of Hildegard of Bingen — and they range from medieval scholars to new age crystal gazers — had plenty to feast on this week. German director Margarethe von Trotta’s re-imagined biographical drama is playing in local cinemas, and two performances of the morality play Ordo virtutum were presented by the Cappella Clausura under the direction of Amelia LeClair on Friday, November 13 at the Episcopal Parish of the Messiah in Newton, and on Saturday, November 14 at the First Lutheran Church, Boston. Following is a review is of the second performance.

Abbess, herbalist and writer on medical and scientific topics, poet and visionary, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179, also called Hildegard von Bingen) was also a composer whose settings of religious poetry, both lyrical and dramatic, have survived in two large manuscripts from the late twelfth century. Intended for performance by the nuns of the community she founded and led, the Play of the Virtues depicts the struggle between the Devil and sixteen personified Virtues for possession of the human Soul (Anima). As explained in a succinct introduction by LeClair and also visible in a giant-size copy of the manuscript that served as a backdrop to the performance, the music is notated on four-line staves in neumes that indicate pitch and text placement but not note durations. Sparse rubrics (annotations in red ink) identify the protagonists but give neither stage directions nor suggestions for harmonization or  instrumental accompaniment of the melodies. Although instruments were not permitted in churches until late in the Middle Ages, members of monastic communities did play them, and they might have accompanied a performance in a refectory or other common area of a convent. In this performance, a vielle (medieval fiddle) and a harp, joined occasionally by LeClair on the symphonia (medieval hurdy-gurdy) provided reinforcement to the choir and occasional (invented) instrumental interludes. Practiced from the early Middle Ages, vocal organum — doubling of chant melodies at the fifth and/or the octave, or by a drone on a single pitch — added sonic variety to the ensemble singing. A more surprising feature of this performance, perhaps, was the costuming of the singers. Was the decision to dress them in contemporary civilian clothing rather than in nuns’ garb inspired by the fact that members of Hildegard’s community of nuns from aristocratic families occasionally adorned themselves with fine clothes and jewelry? Or was the intent to present the personified virtues as down-to-earth humans rather than abstractions?

Hildegard’s highly formulaic yet wide-ranging melodic lines sometimes span more than two octaves, and while largely syllabic, they also contain elaborate melismatic ornamentation that calls for well-trained singers. The Cappella Clausura ensemble of eight singers and four soloists was more than up to the task. Precise intonation, clear tone, but above all excellent diction provided the flexible rhythmic articulation essential to bring these melodies to life. Although provided with scores, these singers appeared to have internalized the music and learned to cue each other to the extent that only minimal conducting gestures, often mere cues, were required from LeClair. Soloists Laura Betinis as Anima, with Daniela Tosic and Lori Brannen Chang as the principal virtues of Humility and Chastity, provided differentiated vocal color along with stylistic consistency, while Leah Hungerford was a suitably triumphant Victoria as she and the Virtues finally subdued the red-shirted Devil (a spoken part played by Margaret Raines).

As its name indicates, Cappella Clausura specializes in music sung by cloistered women. The Ordo Virtutum is an important part of that repertoire, and apart from its historical interest, a work to be valued on its own. With the plethora of New Age and rock reinterpretations of Hildegard’s music on the market, we are lucky to have a group like Cappella Clausura to demonstrate just how beautiful this music can be.

Virginia Newes lives in Cambridge. She was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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