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Concert reviews

"Chants by Hildegard and Herman"
Ordo Virtutum/Stefan Johannes Morent
concert: April 23, 2016, Utrecht, TivoliVredenburg

HERMANNUS CONTRACTUS (1013-1054?): Alma redemptoris mater, antiphon; Ave praeclaris, sequence; Historia Sanctae Afrae (Invitatory Vigli corde & Psalm Venite); Historia Sancti Magni (Antiphon Post transactum & Benedictus; Responsory Veniens vir); Historia Sancti Wolfgangi (Hymn Florem mirificum; Antiphon Gaudeat tota & Magnificat); HILDEGARD OF BINGEN (1098-1179): Kyrie; O ignee spiritus, hymn; O Jerusalem, sequence; O splendidissima gemma, antiphon; O virga ac diadema, sequence; Ordo virtutum (Antiphon In principio; O pater omnipotens); plainchant: Deus in adiutorium, versicle

Hubert Mayer, David Munderloh, Jörg Rieger, chant; Stefan Johannes Morent, chant, flute, hurdy-gurdy; Susanne Ansorg, fiddle

Hildegard of Bingen is one of the most fascinating figures in music history. She lived in a time when most music was anonymous. It didn't really matter who wrote the music: the main thing was that it was written in honour of God. The very concept that every human being had its own identity and that this was something important has come into existence in the time of humanism in the 16th century. In this regard Hildegard of Bingen is a remarkable figure, first because she was a woman who was in correspondence with some of the main figures of her time but also because in her writings she shows an individual approach to faith and to the world around her.

Some of her writings have come down to us with music from her own pen. Little is known about the way this repertoire was performed. It is written for one voice but today it is common practice to add one or several parts, for instance played on an instrument. As Hildegard was at the helm of her own convent it is assumed that her chants have been performed by high voices, not - as in later times - high male voices or boys' voices but female voices. That is how we usually hear her music. In many ways the ensemble Sequentia - one of the first which extensively performed and recorded Hildegard's music - has set the standard.

It therefore takes some courage to approach this repertoire from a different angle. That is exactly what the German ensemble Ordo Virtutum - called after one of Hildegard's main works, a morality play - did in a series of concerts across the Netherlands and Belgium. It consists of male singers and as a result we get a completely new picture of Hildegard's music. There was another factor which was not unimportant but I return to that later. Hildegard's chants were mixed with compositions from the pen of Hermannus Contractus, or Herman the Cripple, whose name refers to his severe physical disability. At the age of seven he entered the abbey on the island of Reichenau in the Bodensee in southern Germany. The monastery on Reichenau was a centre of science and art, and was particularly famous for its library.

There are some similiarities between Hildegard and Hermannus Contractus. There can be little doubt that both were very bright; Hermannus was even considered brilliant both in the field of music and in science. In the booklet to his ensemble's recording of music by Hermannus Stefan Johannes Morent calls him the "Stephen Hawking of the 11th century". However, our knowledge is largely based on the biography of his pupil Berthold, and that work has the character of a hagiography. Even so, there can be little doubt that he was very knowledgeable in music as his compositions show. There are similarities between him and Hildegard here as well. Both wrote music which is based on Gregorian chant. But both derived from the strict schemes of the traditional plainchant, especially in regard to the compass of the vocal line. The programme which Ordo Virtutum performed showed that Hildegard goes further in this respect than Hermannus. Moreover, one specific feature of Hildegard's music is the use of long melismatic passages; in that respect Hermannus is much more restrained.

The content of their chants is also different. Hermannus - part of a traditional monastery - composed Offices for several saints. These include sections which tell the story of the life of the saint in question (vita) but otherwise he stays close to the doctrines and the traditional texts of the Church. In contrast Hildegard's texts are often much more free in content as many of them are based on her visions which she claimed to have received since her childhood. It is not surprising that Hildegard's writings didn't find universal approval with the ecclesiastical authorities. Some texts are hard to understand - that was probably then not very different from our own time.

The performances by Ordo Virtutum clearly demonstrated the similarities and the differences. I had heard the ensemble before on disc, including the one entirely devoted to Hermannus Contractus which I already mentioned. His chants have been discovered fairly recently and Ordo Virtutum recorded them for the first time in 2012 (review). This was also the most convincing part of the concert. In contrast the way Hildegard was performed was something one had to get used to. The low notes sometimes didn't come off that well; in contrast the singers had no problems with the highest notes. Hildegard's music has something ecstatic, partly because of its brilliance which comes to the fore in the wide tessitura and the long melismatic passages. Little of that came off in Ordo Virtutum's performance. Its performances were good and solid but too much down to earth.

Ordo Virtutum is a fine ensemble and comprises four excellent singers including Stefan Johannes Morent himself who also played several instruments, alongside Susanne Ansorg on fiddle. Their additions and their instrumental performances of some vocal items created some of the excitement which was missing in the vocal performances. This was also reflected by the reception of the audience which was appreciative but not overly enthusiastic: there were hardly any who raised from their seats as is so often the case.

I am not convinced that a performance of Hildegard's chants with male voices is a real alternative to an interpretation with female voices. The arguments in the programme notes seemed to me rather speculative. But the main problem was probably the acoustic. The chamber music hall of TivoliVredenburg has a good acoustic but is not ideally suited to this kind of repertoire. It needs more reverberation; a medieval church like the Pieterskerk would have been a much better venue. I suspect that in such surroundings the character of Hildegard's chants - and of Hermannus' compositions, for that matter - would have come off much better.

I just hope that those in the audience who did not know Hermannus Contractus - probably the large majority - will have got a good impression of his music and are willing to investigate his chants. They should look for Ordo Virtutum's recording and also investigate other discs from this ensemble which include little-known but interesting sacred music from the Middle Ages.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Concert reviews