Hildegard von Bingen. Ordo Virtutum, performed by Seraphic Fire (vocal ensemble), SFMCD16, 67:53 ****
I am old enough now to remember when Gregorian Chant became a mainstream phenomenon, when everyday people might flock over to the classical section in a store to experience the sound of many voices singing a single line, with ample reverb and a timeless, if not otherworldly aesthetic. This recording features a liturgical drama by the German Benedictine abbess Hildegard von Bingen. This morality play is significant for a number of reasons; the first, it would seem, is that it comes from someone who by all accounts was a particularly gifted individual. The work was written around 1151. Put into context, it’s particularly old music. This means at some level we have to contextualize the music and the recording of it. A work such as this would have served a pragmatic function as an instructional medium. Thankfully the included booklet includes a translation from the original Latin.
There’s also the now recognizable style of this work as “chant” by the general public and what whatever that means to us today. I can’t say why the original chant craze took off in the 1990s, but I am pretty sure it had more to do with the sound quality than the text or its historical significance. There may be readers who like the aesthetic of chant, and especially in this case, chant performed by a female ensemble.
There is, of course, a performing tradition around chant, but that’s not to say all chant is the same. (Church performance practice varied by location and conceivably, changes were made over time.) Seraphic Fire, who records this album, have consulted with a musicological expert to try their best at an accurate performance. I had not heard of this Miami-based ensemble before, but found they’ve made a number of recordings of varied repertoire, and that the ensemble has a regular male complement to the voices heard here. The devil is performed by a male voice. The ensemble also uses percussive elements at the start of sections. Any questions of authenticity aside, I found the ringing of the crotales a pleasant enough signal to function as an indication of something new at the work’s functional pillars. The effect reminds me of the singing bowls in Tibetan music, which to modern ears, are sometimes used for relaxation and meditation.
For those attracted to the sound of chant in a reverberant environment, there will be something to enjoy with this release, however the interjections spoken by the Devil will disrupt the otherwise wandering, melodic declarations. Taken more at face value, the performance provides us a very historical view into life from the twelfth century, specifically the life from a world closed off to many at the time. The emphasis here is not on the constructs of melody and harmony as we enjoy them today, but rather on a clear presentation of the text so that the story could be easily understood.
While I cannot speak well to the ultimate talents of von Bingen’s musical aptitude, as this period and the music that survives is not my ultimate speciality, I applaud Seraphic Fire for taking on the project. Their choral sound blends well and both the singers in a choral arrangement and the soloists have a clear diction with solid intonation.
For me, the subject of the work is of less interest. It speaks to an earlier time and how humankind chose to focus their contemplation. Opinions absent about the need for religious teachings in our time, the function of this music is at least clear and is a significant and interesting contrast to what examples we can find from later historical periods. While each of us is different, the sound world Seraphic Fire achieves here reveals something most obviously from the far past. While I cannot personally relate to the music beyond this association, I am certain there are a number of folks who would be very interested to sample from this album especially for its age and past use to educate. The story itself is aligned with the human challenge against sin and adherence to virtue.
If we compare this release to other recordings of this work, it becomes clear that there is not one accepted performance practice; some introduce instruments as drones (this recording uses voices in a drone role), some go out of their way to modernize the concept, which is to say, creativity takes over when any sure understanding of a bonafide performance practice doesn’t exist. This performance sounded more closely aligned with the earlier recording by Sequentia. These two are perhaps more conservative than others in terms of modern creative touches but I ultimately preferred this newer recording by Seraphic Fire; the sound quality is certainly better and the performances, I think, come across stronger with better urgency.
To summarize, this is a new recording of a very old piece of music by the first documented female composer from the western tradition. Taken out of context from its own time, it’s somewhat of a miracle that we have enough material to construct a performance and when we consider the role of music as a teaching medium, in or outside religious tradition, we honestly can still follow von Bingen’s story. I applaud the ensemble’s efforts to seek out the scholarship on how best to perform this work. While there is still a large amount of guesswork involved, I think for modern audiences, this performance stands out for the care put into its production, for the high musical technique of the singers, and the desire to expose more of the public to this important milestone in musical history.
I find no fault, either, for those who think they like this only for its sonorous character, for how different it sounds from music from the (later) classical tradition. One of my own favorite recordings of repertoire near this time in musical history was performed by the Hilliard Ensemble. Without understanding the Latin natively, all I was left with then was the sound world—however close or distant it was to original performances—created by that ensemble. I can assure you that the texts were far less interesting than what constitutes Ordo Virtutum, yet to my contemporary ears and contemporary world view, that sound was special enough to force me to part with the money in my college days for the CD. Anyone wanting to escape the sounds of modernity for something that may have been heard in a German abbey hundreds of years ago can’t go wrong with this album on a sonic level. For those with an interest in this composer, her legacy, and way about which she went to solve a real practical concern in her time, it offers us a glimpse through the mirror by an ensemble who is committed to seeing it done well.
This album will no doubt also serve as a collectable for those who support this ensemble and are able to see them perform in person.