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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; illumination from the Rupertsberg MS
The Cosmic Egg
All the illustrations in this essay are taken from the Rupertsberg MS, attributed to Hildegard herself.
There are plenty of reasons why the Peabody Opera Department is taking the unusual step of performing, on November 5 and 6, 1998, one of the earliest music dramas ever written, Hildegard von Bingen’s morality play, Ordo Virtutum, or “The Company of the Virtues.” It celebrates the 900th anniversary of Hildegard’s birth; it fits in well with a season that closes both the century and the millennium; it caters to the recent popularity of chant in general and of Hildegard in particular; it provides practical experience in an historical area rarely touched in live performance; and it showcases many of Peabody’s talented but under-used soprano singers. But for me personally, there is another reason, echoing a statement by the celebrated designer John Conklin which I read earlier this year: that one learns to accept precisely those proposals which one hasn’t the faintest idea how to handle. So when Susan Weiss of our musicology faculty suggested the Hildegard, enthusiastically supported by [Peabody Director’s wife] Vicki Sirota, a church musician who is also an Episcopal priest, I said yes.

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.

with her amanuensis Volmar  
Hildegard von Bingen
with her amanuensis Volmar
Hildegard was born in the Rhineland in 1098, the tenth daughter of noble parents. She entered the novitiate at the age of eight, took the veil at fifteen, and became the mother superior to her small group of sisters in 1136, when she would have been thirty-eight. Roughly ten years later, she founded her own monastery on the Rupertsberg, near Bingen, where it is almost certain the Ordo Virtutum was written. A visionary, prophetess, and prolific writer, her fame spread far beyond her local community. Now often referred to as “the Sibyl of the Rhine,” she became involved in ecclesiastical and even secular politics, making four extensive tours throughout Germany, and being consulted on matters both sacred and secular by bishops. emperors, and even popes.

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.

soul steadfast against temptation
The Soul steadfast against Temptation
The story of the Ordo Virtutum is simple. A Soul, still imprisoned in the human body which she must wear on her journey through life, presents herself to the Virtues to be accepted into heaven. But the Virtues offer no easy apotheosis. All they can promise is their help in fighting the temptations of the world through which the Soul must still pass. Disappointed, the Soul feels she can no longer resist the world’s blandishments, and leaves in the company of the ever-present Devil. The Virtues mourn her defection but find strength in their ability to work together to the glory of God. When the Soul returns, besmirched but penitent, they accept her back, and together they help her conquer the Devil.

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.

Holy Trinity  
The Holy Trinity
The play was written for a religious community, and the single goal of life in such a community is to study how to come closer to God. The seventeen Virtues depicted by Hildegard are not abstractions but role-models, reminders of the constant struggle on the part of all these women to overcome their own weaknesses, and their delight in being offered the privilege of doing so. Yes, delight. For I came to realize that the Ordo Virtutum was no mere didactic morality, but a spiritual celebration — a joyous, transcendent ritual which we may not understand in detail, but whose overall dedication, surety, and exaltation affects us in ways that go beyond mere words, lessons, or even narrative.

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.

cosmic wheel
The Cosmic Wheel
Since so few people today understand Latin, and singing the work in translation is out of the question, the main medium for conveying the transcendence and exaltation of Hildegard’s vision must be through her music. In approaching this, I have been keeping company with Webb Wiggins, the musical director of the production, who, like me, has never worked in the medieval field before. At first, the music seemed to us like a pen drawing: monochrome, and relying solely on line for its effect. But as we came to listen to other versions (amazingly, at least three are available on CD), and have begun to experiment ourselves, it suddenly seemed that so far from being confined to black and white, we were presented with an almost embarrassing palette of colors.

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.

Since it is probable that the Ordo Virtutum was written for a ceremonial occasion, it is likely that instruments would also have been available, but there is no record of how they would have been used. Examples taken from the recordings include the use of instrumental drones, or light arpeggiation on the harp, to maintain pitch and add another spatial dimension. But they also include the use of solo instruments to echo the voices melodically, interweaving with them almost like a second singer. Some recordings also contain separate dances, which are purely instrumental in nature, although derived from Hildegard’s melodies.

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

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