Posthumous fame came very late for the German abbess Hildegard of Bingen, but her rediscovery in the late 20th century some 800 years after she died has been a salutary achievement for the appreciation of early music and the music of women composers.
That isn’t to say that Hildegard’s idiom, which consists of her own special style of plainchant, blends smoothly into the noise of the early 21st century. It takes a certain attentive attitude on the part of the listener as well as some imaginative power. Trying to bring oneself into the mindset of 12th-century Europe, and a cloistered religious community to boot, makes any substantial encounter with Hildegard effortful.
So it was quite a feat for the Miami-based concert choir Seraphic Fire to open its 18th season with a complete performance of Hildegard’s Ordo virtutum (Order of the Virtues), the first morality play of the Middle Ages and something of a proto-Pilgrim’s Progress. Composed circa 1151, this hourlong work traces the struggle of a Soul as she tries to avoid sin and heed the voices of the Virtues, all the while fighting a Devil who mocks the Virtues and promises that anyone who follows him will be given everything.
With only a couple exceptions that are not in the manuscript but certainly justified on scholarly grounds, all of this music is monophonic chant set to a Latin text (also by Hildegard). Polyphony had only just begun to enter church music at this time — notably at the French abbey of St. Martial, home to important manuscripts of early harmonic experiment — and so a modern audience of non-Latin speakers needs assistance in absorbing it.
For Seraphic Fire’s performance Nov. 7 at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Boca Raton, conductor Patrick Dupré Quigley fashioned an effective way to reach that audience and yet suggest the austere surroundings in which it originally would have been heard. He did this by signaling pitches and new sections with a simple striking of a bell (here, a small glockenspiel played by soprano Sara Guttenberg), evoking church ceremonies of centuries past, and asked of his singers no more than that they sing their various Virtue personae — Humility, Charity, Obedience, Hope, Fear of God, etc. — with conviction.
And that’s precisely what they did. Hildegard’s community was an all-female one, and this was an all-female performance, with 12 singers from the Seraphic Fire corps augmented by four students from the ensemble artist program at UCLA. The one male exception was the speaking role of the Devil, here performed by chorus master James K. Bass.
Alto Luthien Brackett, a longtime Seraphic Fire member, sang the role of the Soul affectingly, with an attractive pleading quality in her voice that effectively suggested distress as she sang lines such as Succurrite michi, adiuvando, ut possim stare: “Hasten and help me, so that I may stand firm.”
She was answered over the course of the piece by a host of Seraphic Fire singers, most of them, like Brackett, well-known to repeat audiences of this group. Perhaps most affecting from a solo standpoint were alto Clara Osowski, who sang the part of Humility with memorable commitment, and soprano Sarah Moyer, whose brief appearance as Mercy was clothed in a voice of purity and beauty.
There were a couple moments of St. Martial-style organum, when the singers would land on a note and hold it through the music of the next soloist, making for a refreshing effect, and one burst of harmony on that very word; since thirds and sixths were not yet part of church vocabulary, it was a sudden outcry in the perfect consonances of the day: fourths, fifths and octaves.
Purists might argue that these minor moments of voices on different pitches were anachronistic, but we don’t know enough about 12th-century performance practice to say that. It defies credulity to think that man, the musical animal, had not been singing and playing instruments in some kind of harmony for millennia no matter what Christian church norms were at the time. The original performance of this work may have taken some sort of folk practice like that into account, even if the manuscript does not.
As the Devil, Bass’s accent was very Latinx Latin, if that makes sense, and he made much of his few shouted passages. Cloaked, inevitably, in red, he submitted docilely when two of the singers came down to bind him in chains while Good triumphed just inches away. Quigley’s always energetic conducting was fully on display here, driving the chant along to serve the drama, though at some expense of Hildegard’s distinctive chant style.
A decent-sized audience at St. Gregory’s received this deeply sincere, sonically polished performance with sober attention, and many of them stood up at the end, as has become customary for this group. But the applause was polite rather than effusive; the Ordo virtutum asks a lot of its audience today, not just in asking it to cope with an intensely devotional text but a remote musical idiom devoid of the harmony we’re so used to.
It was the kind of concert that sent you home to think about how different the world was in those days, and at the same time how much respect these distant people deserve for the way they expressed matters of existence and the soul, even if that way speaks very differently to our ears, steeped in sin as they are.