Back to the Source
Exploring the Ordo Virtutum
by Roger Brunyate
This article is reprinted from Peabody News, December 1997, announcing a production of Hildegard von Bingen’s music drama to celebrate the 900th anniversary of her birth. While the 2005 production will probably be different in several respects, and the journey on which she leads her interpreters will now start in a different place, the process of exploration is bound to be similar, although we may hope it will lead us even farther than before.
|The Cosmic Egg|
All the illustrations in this essay are taken from the Rupertsberg MS, attributed to Hildegard herself.
The immediate result for me has been a fascinating journey back to the very sources of drama and of music. It has led me into areas of aesthetics which are entirely new to me, and at the same time made me re-examine some of my priorities in interpreting the music of today. It is a journey which has by no means been completed at the time of writing, but one which continues to reveal new possibilities around every corner; a voyage of discovery that is shared by my colleagues, and by each of the students involved in the project.
The journey began with a question: why are we performing this piece? The various reasons given above are all good ones, but none of them has anything to do with Hildegard’s reason for writing it, and unless we can connect with her reason in some way, the production would have little point. Our first task, therefore, was to find out more about Abbess Hildegard herself.
Hildegard von Bingen|
with her amanuensis Volmar
Above all, Hildegard was a poet and composer of outstanding originality and beauty. It is thought that her visions may have been the product of excruciating migraines, and indeed the Latin verse in which she recorded them has a highly-colored and utterly personal quality, at times apocalyptic, at times almost sensual. In addition to the Ordo and her prose works, she wrote 77 religious poems, all with music. This music, of course, is based upon the plainchant tradition, but it goes far beyond it in its unusual intervals, repeated melodic cells, cascades of notes in extended melismatic passages, and above all in its extraordinary vocal range, spanning more than two octaves.
|The Soul steadfast against Temptation|
Three of the four scenes of the play have obvious dramatic content: the temptation of the Soul, her repentance, and the ultimate battle with the Devil. But these episodes are relatively short. The longest scene of all, the central roll-call of the Virtues, is devoid of any conflict, and therefore has no drama as we commonly understand it. My first instinct was to accept this as a weakness, and to strive to make the outer scenes exciting enough to carry us through the middle section. But then I realized that much of the most marvelous music was in this scene with the Virtues alone, especially a sequence during which the voices rise an entire octave in pitch above the level that had been established hitherto. Might I not have got it entirely backwards? What if, so far from the Virtues’ scene being an interlude in the real story, the narrative element were merely the frame which makes the central celebration of Virtue both possible and necessary? Once I saw it this way, everything changed.
|The Holy Trinity|
It is clear that what we needed to do in our production was to get away as far as possible from the expectations of modern theater, and to take the participants (including the audience) back into the life of a group of medieval nuns. A life without pressures of time. A life lived mainly in silence, in which the sound of the unaccompanied human voice breaking the silence could shine like a ray of light in a dark church. A life of quiet service — but also of joyous celebration. I found myself pulling away from my original idea of the chancel as a stage, and the Virtues as characters who would present their message through song, poetry, and dance. I wanted to recreate instead the community around the performance — a group of ordinary women of all ages, engaged in a spiritual pursuit that was really quite extraordinary. I wanted to do this, moreover, in a way which, while remaining true to Hildegard’s own religious formation, would speak to the spiritual impulses in all of us, regardless of religious persuasion.
|The Cosmic Wheel|
Everybody knows, or thinks they know, what chant sounds like: pure, white voices, sounding out of an echoing silence, singing unaccompanied lines in unhurried even tempo. Let us take this approach as basic. But we quickly discovered many ways of going beyond this. What if we were to abandon the quest for pure straight tone and allow the singers to reveal something of their own individual character, at least in the section where the Virtues are presented as individuals? What if we varied the tempo a lot more, slowing down some passages while running ahead through others? What if we allowed the free organic pulse to become more obviously metricized, to enhance the more militant or exuberant passages? What if we allowed some variations from pure monody? There are moments in our production when half the singers sing Hildegard’s line while the others hold a “drone” — an unchanging note below or above the main melody, or sometimes even a simple chord. Although the practice did not come into written music until later, we have also experimented with organum, or singing the melody at two different pitches in parallel. We have even decided to use canon at one point, with the Virtues singing their melody in overlapping phrases like a round, as though wrapping the Devil in woven skeins of sound.
What are we to do? Could it be that this richness of possibility is the temptation of an aesthetic devil, drawing us away from the purity of Hildegard’s conception? Our journey is incomplete, as I said, and we have not yet reached a final answer. The danger is to use these devices merely as a means of giving the audience something more familiar and entertaining. Nothing must get in the way of establishing that very different sense of space and time which is central to the monastic life. But the Ordo Virtutum has a carefully-considered structure, and we can surely use musical means to make this clearer. Furthermore, Hildegard’s vision is brilliant, ecstatic, and colorful; how could we not match it by the use — in the appropriate places — of all the means at her disposal? In her own poetry she does no less.Ordo revival, February 2005 Return to top Other essays Previous page