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On Wrestling Hildegard Von Bingen

April 17, 2008

When I auditioned for a role in Hildegard von Bingen's musical drama Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues) I thought I'd be lucky to get a small solo part. Somehow though, I was offered the key role of "The Soul" in the famous German abbess' 12th century morality play -- the oldest of its kind existent in the world today. Exciting news indeed for someone who's never sung a solo role in a public performance (unless you count playing Peter Pan in a musical at grade school) much less done so in plainchant.

Chant, I'm discovering, has its own set of amorphous yet nonetheless precise rules for performance. No one really knows how Bingen's music was performed, so the best we can do is make educated guesses about it. I've heard many different interpretations of her music. Needless to say, no two sound anything like each other. Some versions are slow and stately while others skip along playfully. Some feature full musical accompaniments, while others only provide a drone or nothing at all. Some require the singers to use vibrato while others go for a purer sound. I even heard one recording with an awful artificial "reverb" effect that distorted the singer's voice until it sounded like she was a member of the Irish folk-rock group Clannad.

Hildegard's music is fiendishly hard to learn and even more tricky to memorize, which I have to do prior to rehearsals which begin in June. Lacking real melodies, a regular pulse and even bar lines, getting a feel for the shape of each musical number is challenging. I'm also finding myself struggling with getting my lips around the Germanized Latin, which I've never dealt with before (remembering, for example, that the word "quod" is pronounced "qvod".)

Yet somehow the music so easily slips under one's skin. I find myself humming phrases to myself at different times during the day and falling asleep to half-remembered snatches at night. The other thing I love about Ordo is how so much of The Soul's part sits so comfortably in the middle of my range. Hildegard is known for skipping about between far-flung notes and demanding two-octave-plus ranges from singers. But for some reason, The Soul is tailormade for a mezzo soprano. The vocal lines, once you've got a grip on the notes and those awkward little trill things whose official name I can't recall, feel fairly effortless. They don't require the singer to growl down in the depths or scrape the heights hardly at all. You just float through each phrase.

Not being particularly religious, I don't care much about Ordo's liturgical narrative -- a story in which a bunch of allegorical Virtues, dwelling within the City of God, help a penitent Soul (yours truly) to resist temptation and find salvation. Yet even at this early stage of getting to know the work, I find the music utterly intoxicating. And even though at some level, I feel like I could be singing about green eggs and ham, there's something deeply moving about the sentiment behind some of Hildegard's lyrics. The opening solo for The Soul is particularly gorgeous:

O sweet Divinity,
and O delightful life,

in which I shall wear the brightest of garments,

receiving that
which I lost in my first appearance,
to you I sigh,

and invoke all Virtues.

San Francisco Renaissance Voices
will present Ordo Virtutum in August over five performances. It'll be an challenging and doubtless very satisfying process bringing this gorgeous work to life.


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