With just five voices and a medieval harp, the Tiburtina Ensemble conjured the 12th-century abbess, composer, and mystic Hildegard von Bingen on Sunday at Corpus Christi Catholic Church in New York City. No one composed chants like Hildegard, as soprano and Tiburtina artistic director Barbora Kabátková explained in our recent interview – neither before her, nor during her life, nor since.
I wonder if it was the words that inspired Hildegard to compose her peripatetic melismas and range-stretching melodies. Unlike the common practice of the day, she wrote her own lyrics, many of them inspired by the wild visions she experienced throughout her long life. One of the stories of St. Ursula from Tiburtina’s current concert program begins (in translation from the Latin): “O Ecclesia/your eyes are like sapphire/and your ears are like the mountain of Bethel/and your nose is like a mountain of myrrh and incense/and your mouth is like the sound of many waters.”
The Music and Poetry of Hildegard von Bingen
The centuries have preserved Hildegard’s poetry and her music, and thankfully artists like the Tiburtina Ensemble continue to bring them to life. With just five members on their U.S. tour (their first ever performances here, though they were founded in 2008), the Prague-based group expresses something close to a full range of the ways the abbess and her nuns may have performed Hildegard’s chants.
An aside: The word “chant” could be a little bit deceptive here. The music is monophonic, modal, and untimed, like Gregorian chant. But far from a smooth, solemn recitation of staid devotional texts, these songs beg to be sung with emotion, wonder, and visceral force.
At least that’s the approach Kabátková and the ensemble take – with scintillating results. Titled “Celestial Harmony: Music for the Heavenly Court,” the New York City concert was a brilliant way to close out the 48th season of the New York baroque and early music series Music Before 1800.
While Hildegard didn’t leave us any instrumental notation, it’s known that the psaltery (similar to a zither) and the instrument we know today as the medieval harp were part of the musical life of her abbey. The Tiburtina Ensemble have crafted harp accompaniment to some of the chants, played searchingly by Hana Blažíková, who is also one of the Ensemble’s sopranos.
The harp introduction to the first selection, and the porcelain timbre of soprano soloist Tereza Bömová in the loping melody and extensive melisma of the second, set the tone for the concert.
A set of chants relating to the Virgin Mary began with all five voices singing in unison Hildegard’s “Hymnus Ave generosa gloriosa et intacta.” Sublime beauty suffused the antiphon “O tu Illustrata,” with Blažíková soloing.
The Mary set concluded with one of the evening’s two non-Hildegard hymns, which contained the only polyphony of the program – music from Hildegard’s time composed by others. While demonstrating the Ensemble’s consummate skill in polyphony, they also showed, harmonies aside, the contrast between Hildegard’s florid musical imagination and her contemporaries’ more muted musicality.
Other highlights included “O spectabilis viri,” with a fever dream of a melody, sung solo by Kabátková and exemplifying the group’s dynamic range, expressivity, and control. The Responsoria “O felix anima” alternated verses sung by a soloist with refrains sung by the group, all a capella.
After an instrumental played with deep expressivity by Blažíková, the program closed with two antiphons, the latter including, uncharacteristically for Hildegard, a passage from a Psalm.
All Together Now
A koan: When all the women sing in unison, are there sopranos and altos? There are certainly different vocal qualities. Three of the singers were listed as sopranos, two as altos. But, being a fully professional choir, albeit a tiny one, the Tiburtina Ensemble’s voices meld to perfection. The varied timbres enrich the overall sound, and the collective product carries a different kind of musical message than a lone voice conveys.
We may not know if or when instruments played along in Hildegard’s abbey, or how fast or loud the sisters sang, or even how many of them typically sang together. Still, thanks to the vast written record Hildegard left, we know enough that gifted musicians like these can bring her music and to some degree her time to life. And after all, in the end, the human voice, with all its variability, hasn’t changed in essence.
You can experience the May 7 concert virtually beginning May 14 and until May 28. And you should – it’s an absolute treasure. For tickets (just $15, $5 for students) visit the Music Before 1800 website.
The Tiburtina Ensemble returns to the U.S. for the Boston Early Music Festival in June.