Saturday , May 18 2024
Tiburtina Ensemble
The Tiburtina Ensemble (photo credit: Vojtech Havlik)

Exclusive Interview: Tiburtina Ensemble Artistic Director Barbora Kabátková on Hildegard von Bingen, U.S. Debut

Barbora Kabátková and the vocal group she leads, the Tiburtina Ensemble, have been bringing Gregorian chant, medieval polyphony, and contemporary music to European audiences since they formed in 2008 in Prague. But the ensemble had never crossed the Atlantic to perform for American audiences.

That’s about to change, as the all-female group will bring its program “Celestial Harmony: Music for the Heavenly Court by Hildegard of Bingen” to San Diego and New York City in May, then return in June for the Boston Early Music Festival.

Heavenly Revelations

I spoke via Zoom with artistic director Barbora Kabátková about her background, the Ensemble, and the music of Hildegard von Bingen, the legendary 12th-century composer, abbess, and mystic.

The program they’re bringing across the pond consists of a selection of plainchant hymns from the exhaustive Riesencodex, a collection of Hildegard’s spiritual and musical output completed in about 1200 CE, some two decades after her death. I asked Kabátková, who is also a soprano and medieval harpist, how she chose from the 77 or so hymns collected in the codex as “Symphonia Harmoniae Caelestium Revelationum” (“Symphony of the Harmony of Heavenly Revelations”).

Barbora Kabátková, artistic director of the Tiburtina Ensemble
Barbora Kabátková

“I’m always trying to find a theme for a program,” she told me. “So it’s not like a ‘best of Hildegard’s music,'” but rather, in this case, “based on her music that she composed for saints: the Virgin Mary, Saint Ursula and those saints who were surrounding the Virgin Mary in Heaven” – plus one saint I’d never heard of. Saint Disibod was an Irish monk who in the seventh century settled near the Rhine at what became Disibodenberg, the monastery where Hildegard spent half her life (and the ruins of which you can still visit).

The Tiburtina Ensemble: No Strangers to Hildegard

The Tiburtina Ensemble has three Hildegard programs in its repertoire. The program they are bringing to the U.S. next week is the freshest, as they will have performed it only twice before – once in Portugal, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down, and once just now in their home city of Prague.

They have also recorded an album of Hildegard’s music. And they have done what Kabátková calls “the big project”: Ordo Virtutum, Hildegard’s sacred music drama, which Wikipedia describes as “the earliest morality play by more than a century, and the only medieval musical drama to survive with an attribution for both text and music.”

The Sybil of the Rhine – or the Joni Mitchell of the 12th Century?

Hildegard wrote the text for all of her sacred music. And that was just one of the unusual and innovative aspects of her work. As Kabátková explained:

“In the 12th century there was a new wave of composing plainchant. There were new Offices [sets of prayers] for saints, that we call versified Offices – versified poetry, mostly anonymous – and the music comes together with it. Before, they used music that could be played with different texts” – like an old folk melody that’s been used again and again over the centuries with different lyrics.

Hildegard von Bingen
Engraving of Hildegard von Bingen. Source: Wellcome Images

“But then in the time of Hildegard, this new wave came, [where] they were composing new music together with [specific] text. And Hildegard did the same, but in a completely different way. Maybe because of the singers she had in her nunnery, the pieces have a huge range, sometimes more than two octaves – in those days the normal Offices for saints were composed in one octave and maybe something more.

“Also it was much more simple music than Hildegard’s music, [which was] very ornamental – you have, like, 20 notes for one syllable! Which is not usual for the period in plainchant music.

“That she composed the words too was very exceptional. In these versified Offices it’s like poetry in a modern way of thinking, and it’s based on her visions [Hildegard experienced visions all her long life] and her experience with liturgy – the inner life of Hildegard.”

This reminded me of the transition during the 1960s from the Tin Pan Alley age to the era of the singer-songwriter.

Hildegard von Bingen, the Mountain that Stands Alone

“And I find it really interesting,” Kabátková added, “that there was no successor to Hildegard. No one was following her in her way of composing. So it was just her. It’s like you have just one mountain, and it was Hildegard, and there are no other big mountains like that.”

Kabátková has also pondered whether this music was performed outside the monastery, and concluded that it wouldn’t have been: “It was special music for a special place.”

If you’ve ever heard plainchant – Gregorian chant, for example – you may have wondered if it’s hard for the singers to remain in tune and sing together as one, on the same melody, for the length of an entire hymn. I asked Kabátková about this.

“Of course we have to do a lot to be like one voice, it’s not easy,” she said, “but we formed the group in 2008 and it’s [been] almost the same people [all along], so we got used to each other, we know what to do so it’s really monophonic.

“And when we do harmonies with it, like when we play harp and so on, the challenge for me is always not to play too much! Because we are touched by a huge amount of romantic music, contemporary music; we have very [much] experience with many kinds of music. So [with plainchant] we have to really keep calm in a way, not to play too much harmony and just to think about the melody of the piece and not to use too many notes!”

And what about singing and playing at the same time, as she does when she accompanies plainchant on the harp or psaltery?

The trick, she said, is again “just not to play too many notes. For the brain sometimes it’s so difficult. But when you get used to it, singing monophonic music, you don’t have a problem to stay in tune the whole time even without instruments. And when you get used to singing this kind of music it’s not a problem to sing and play at the same time.”

Strings Attached

About those instrumental accompaniments, Kabátková explained: “Hildegard didn’t write anything for instruments, but it’s written in her curriculum vitae that she was accompanying herself on psaltery [a medieval stringed instrument similar to a zither] when she was singing ‘psalms’ [which at the time could mean any liturgical music]. So that’s why we also decided to use harps and psalteries to accompany the music of Hildegard, because it goes so well together.

“But not all the pieces, because [with] some you feel it’s more like real plainchant, and some it’s more like solo songs/chants so then we use the harp to accompany.”

Tobias Stimmer woodcut engraving of a woman with a psaltery, circa 1570-1577.
Woodcut engraving by Tobias Stimmer of a woman with a psaltery, circa 1570-1577.

When Hildegard died in 1179 she left much more than music behind. She was a philosopher, and a mystic (those visions!). She wrote treatises about natural history and about the medicinal properties of plants, trees, animals, even stones. She’s the first composer about whom we have biographical information (though not the first known female composer!)

I asked Kabátková what, knowing all this, she felt Hildegard was actually like.

“My feeling from her, when I was studying her music, her life, and the society around her, I would say she was a very strong women. She had to be, otherwise she couldn’t do what she has done. She met so many important people and they were listening to her. And this way of composing – it could be a problem if she weren’t so strong, because [while] it’s a gift from God, maybe people could also [have found] some devils in it because it was so exceptional and so modern in a way.”

Fate

One century’s modern is another century’s ancient. An early-music aficionado myself, I asked Kabátková what originally drew her to the relatively small world of ancient music.

She explained that she had been singing in the Prague Philharmonic Children’s Choir, which was also connected to the National Theater, and so had done a lot of music by the likes of Mahler, Janáček, and what she calls “big Russian music of the 20th century” by the likes of Mussorgsky and Shostakovich. Then one day a friend invited to her a concert that featured a piece by Czech composer Jan Dismas Zelenka, and she fell in love with it.

From there she decided to study choir conducting and took lessons in plainchant/Gregorian chant with Prof. David Eben, who specializes in medieval music at the Institute of Musicology at Charles University in Prague.

“And I found such interesting things in such a simple – simple in a way, of course – music. So then I decided to study that. I was studying choir conducting and musicology and meeting people who invited me to sing…I never studied singing [at a conservatory or university], only private lessons.

“So it was really fatum, fate. I felt more comfortable in that music, also vocally. The world of early music is much more ‘clear’ with me than the world of opera. In early music people also study philosophy, history, etc. because you really need to know it. It’s not just all about the music and singing, but all the things around it.”

The things around it have moved on. But Hildegard’s music survives and, after more than eight centuries, thrives, thanks to the Tiburtina Ensemble and the many other artists and groups the abbess’s music has inspired.

The Tiburtina Ensemble led by Barbora Kabátková performs in San Diego on May 5, New York City on May 7, and Boston on June 9, with concerts in Germany also on the schedule for this spring and summer.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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