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Heavenly Vision Made Music



For 16 years Amelia LeClair has focused Cappella Clausura on music by women composers from the Middle Ages to the present. With Hildegard of Bingen’s morality play, Ordo virtutum, the ensemble apparently riveted audiences at the Eliot Church in Newton on Saturday evening and most definitely engaged with the crowd at St. Paul’s Church in Brookline on Sunday afternoon (where this writer attended).

According to her own account, in the year 1141 Hildegard, a visionary Benedictine nun, received a divine command to begin setting down her apocalyptic, prophetic, and symbolic visions:

And behold! In the 43rd year of my earthly course, as I was gazing with great fear and trembling attention at a heavenly vision, I saw a great splendor in which resounded a voice from Heaven, saying to me, ‘O fragile human, ashes of ashes, and filth of filth! Say and write what you see and hear….’

With the help of the monk Volmar, Hildegard probably completed this task in 1152, and named her book Scivias simplicis hominis (Scivias by a Simple Person), Scivias being an abbreviated form of Scitote vias Domini (Know the Ways of the Lord). In the meantime, she had founded a new community of nuns on the Rupertsberg, near Bingen in the Rhine valley. Soon she became known as a mystic, poet, missionary, and author of medical and scientific treatises. Hildegard’s morality play Ordo virtutum, a version of whose text appears at the end of Scivias, enacts dramatically the soul’s progress toward salvation in the face of the Devil’s temptations. Most likely she conceived the play with her own convent in mind, employing a cast of 17 virtues of special importance in monastic life, and especially in the life of nuns. LeClair and her singers believe the play also has a wider relevance to modern life. Retaining Hildegard’s original texts and melodies, the choir of four men and 14 women dressed in fashionable modern garb, with  women stomping about in high heels. Some of them even read from iPad tablets while seated at a central table like so many members of a corporate board.

According to Guibert of Gembloux, Hildegard’s secretary late in life and one of her biographers, she heard music during her visions and later remembered the wordless melodies she had heard. This account tells us that the music came first and then the texts, in the same way that words were fitted to textless melismas in medieval chant. Hildegard’s unaccompanied chants consist of melodic patterns that recur in different combinations and in different modes. The melodies sound both familiar and improvisational, varying as they do in both pitch level and tonal center. The 12th-century manuscript with German neumes on a four-line staff — reproduced in the program book as well as on a screen at the back of the stage — clearly define both pitch and the coordination of notes and syllables. They do not, however, indicate relative note values; rhythms have to be inferred from normal word declamation. LeClair allowed the singers — all of them outstanding — to move at their own pace when performing as soloists, directing them, from a seated position, only when they sang together as a group. A sung drone enhanced some of the choral chants; in others, organum-style harmony in parallel fifths and octaves filled out the texture. Lights were up so we could follow texts and translations in the well-designed handout. As Anima, mezzo soprano Caroline Olsen sang with focused expression as she struggled against the Devil’s wiles. Highly convincing as the Devil, singer-actor Karin Trachtenberg found herself roped to a chair by the outraged Virtues, who finally untied her and hustled her off the stage.

Five instrumentalists supported the singers with drone accompaniments to some of the chants, as well as providing interludes between the play’s four scenes in the form of lively dance pieces (estampies). Na’ama Lion played a hauntingly mellifluous medieval flute, Nancy Hurrell a small medieval harp, Carol Lewis a vielle that can play drone chords across its strings, and Mike Williams a small pair of drums. LeClair too occasionally joined the drone ensemble with a small, wheel operated symphonie, a kind of medieval hurdy-gurdy, held on her lap. Although such instruments were not allowed in churches in the Middle Ages, they would have been tolerated in the refectory of a convent, where Ordo virtutum is likely to have been performed and instruments could have been played by the nuns. Our thanks to Amelia LeClair and Cappella Clausura for an imaginatively updated and captivating performance of Hildegard’s still relevant drama.

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

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