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Hildegarde von Bingen’s Celestial Music


Benjamin Bagby (file photo)
Benjamin Bagby (file photo)

I am the rare listener who made the acquaintance of “The “Sybil of the Rhine,” the 12th-century visionary abbess, healer, and celebrity, Hildegard von Bingen by way of the Old English saga, “Beowolf.” What the two have in common is the brilliant harpist/singer/ actor/scholar Benjamin Bagby, whose DVD of “Beowolf” inspired me to hear him whenever he was in or near Boston. My last Bagby encounter was at Wellesley College in 2012 (reviewed here) in “Fragments for the End of Time,” in which he sang, played a 6 string harp, enthralled and terrified.  Bagby sees himself as “a reconstructed singer of tales,” and his performances of medieval works (“The Lost Songs Project,” music from the Icelandic “Edda: The Rheingold Curse”) are invariably riveting— sold out year after year. He is a phenomenon.

Sponsored by The Boston Early Music Festival, Sequentia, played to a full house at St. Paul Church in Cambridge on Saturday night. This esteemed medieval music group, founded and directed by Bagby and his late wife, Barbara Thornton (1950-1998) in 1977, have had a Hildegard von Bingen project ongoing since 1982. Of the current seven female singers, one was born after the project began. Another was in the original ensemble. The only other performer on Saturday who also played at Wellesley was the enchanting transverse flute player, Norbert Rodenkirchen.

Most of the audience clearly came to hear the music of Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), knowing full- or at least partially- well who she was. The wonder woman of the 12th century, Hildegard seems to have come out of nowhere. From a young age, she was a recognized mystic, healer, and exceptional musician. Efforts to canonize her were thwarted in the 13thcentury, but by the 20th, enough of her music was collected to prove she was worth canonization, and was elevated to Sainthood, finally, and Doctor Ecclesiae in 2012. Sequentia has, as of this March, completed its 22-year project of recording her complete works (in CDs). All the vocal editions were prepared by Bagby, and the few instrumental pieces (far too few) with harp and/or flute were arranged by Bagby and Rodenkirchen from Hildegard’s melodies.

The evening’s program, “Mystical Voices of Medieval Germany: Hildegard von Bingen: Celestial Hierarchy” took the last part of its title from Bingen’s “Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum” (symphony of the harmony of celestial revelations), a title, Bagby writes, that indicated the poetic cycle’s divine inspiration. “Her visions included not only the visible reality of God but also his musical reality.” Her music, the program notes by Barbara Stühlmeyer insist, was inspired by the liturgy and written for it.” Her songs are “not examples of art music that are at home onstage and that can be arranged in effective ways depending on the performers’ inspiration and wealth of ideas.”

“Celestial Hierarchy” is also the title of Sequentia’s final CD of Hildegard, a nine CD set that will be released this March by DHM/SONY.

Hildegard believed that music, the highest form of human activity, and her creations were intended to be sung by the sisters of her convent on the Rhine at Bingen as a complement to the traditional Gregorian chant sung during liturgical and other functions. One can hardly imagine it being sung more beautifully than it was by Sequentia. A deep quiet and calm descended upon the spellbound audience, lasting the entire concert (performed without intermission). I only wish there had been more use of the two instrumentalists. In their one duo, they played the liveliest music of the evening, a much-appreciated palate cleanser which broke the hypnotic spell of the singers. After such a peaceful evening, the thunderous applause at the end was almost unwelcome. I would have rather walked quietly into the cold night air and kept the haunting music alive in my memory a little longer. A major set of bravas to the singers. And to the Benjamin Bagby, who sat quietly onstage most of the evening, enjoying the fruits of his and his wife’s devotion to unearthing and enhancing the legend of Hildegard.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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