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Hildegard’s output as a writer was prodigious, encompassing letters to the rich and powerful seeking action and to others providing advice and consolation, and texts addressing theology, medicine, astrology, and botany. Her musical compositions include seventy-seven songs, the Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations) and the Latin sacred drama Ordo Virtutum, regarded as the earliest surviving ‘morality play’.
Hildegard stated that from childhood, she experienced intense visions in which, through ‘the reflection of the living Light’, she heard the voice of God and saw powerful images revealing God’s message. In 1141, she stated God had instructed her to ‘write down that which you see and hear’. A trio of theological treatises followed over a thirty-year period—Scivias (Know the Ways of God), Liber Vitae Meritorum (Book of Life’s Merits), and Liber Divinorum Operum (Book of Divine Works). In these treatises, Hildegard describes and interprets her vivid, strange visions in immense detail, and instructs how their insights should be applied to life. Scivias was written between 1141 and 1151; the manuscript produced at Rupertsberg was adorned with illuminations capturing in meticulous detail Hildegard’s descriptions of her visions.
It is in Book Three of Scivias that the text of Ordo Virtutum is found. In the Symphony of the Blessed, the thirteenth and final Vision, Hildegard tells the story of Devil tempting a struggling Soul, and her fall, repentance, and rescue by the Virtues. The Virtues’ exhortations are drawn from Vision Three (The Tower of Anticipation of God’s Will) and Vision Eight (The Pillar of the Word of God).
The play was composed around 1151 and may have been first performed by Hildegard and her community of nuns for the consecration of Rupertsberg convent, with her teacher and scribe Volmar, a Disibodenberg monk, perhaps cast as the Devil. Notwithstanding that Hildegard’s personification of the Virtues as females agrees with earlier models, the play’s subtext of what women can achieve through collaboration, perseverance, and courage would not have not have escaped its audience.
Words & music
Ordo Virtutum is a powerful blend of poetic texts brimming with the vivid imagery of Hildegard’s visions, monastic restraint in the pace of the narrative, echoes of liturgical ritual, and peaks of musical and emotional intensity conveying that the Soul’s eternal salvation or damnation is at stake.
Music was a powerful weapon in Hildegard’s evangelistic weaponry, and she wields it very deliberately in the play. With the exception of the Devil, the characters sing together and as solo voices in plainchant throughout. During their rescue of the penitent Soul, the Virtues sing:
Volumus te reducere et nolumus te deserere, et omnis celestis milicia gaudet super te—ergo decet nos in symphonia sonare.
We want to bring you back—we shall not desert you, the whole host of Heaven will rejoice in you; thus it is right for us to sound our music—to play instruments in harmony.
Denied singing or harmony of any kind, the Devil must deliver his evil persuasions by speaking or shouting—in this production, his utterances are elaborated with unpitched percussion, tritones ('diabolus in musica') on the portative organ, and wholesale digital effects.
For this production the music has been transcribed anew from the original notation and rhythmic inflections inferred according to the burgeoning 12th-century system of rhythmic modes—contrasted with a much freer soloistic rhythmic interpretation by some of the main characters in the drama. Humility and three of the other Virtues introduce themselves with their 'Ego' statements before the drama begins in a semi-improvised praelocutio. Drones and other harmonic and colouristic effects including 'symphonia'—instrumental sounds from the time—have been added in a characteristic blend of moderation and exuberance.
Design & concepts
In connecting with Hildegard’s play for The Song Company’s touring production and film of Circle of Virtue, its ideas of human vulnerability, forgiveness, healing, and the collaboration of women seemed to resonate most powerfully; diffused from their religious source, these ideas seem more relevant than ever. Equally, the Ordo Virtutum is a work whose author, and her remarkable visions, cannot be separated from its realization. As such, Hildegard’s visions and their illuminations inform the physical world of the play and our own ‘illumination’ of that world.
The vision titled the Trinity in the Unity (as featured on the album cover) in particular underpins the play’s environment, in which concentric circles of silver and gold represent the light of the Father and the flame of the Holy Spirit surrounding the Son of God. In the touring production from the filming of which this recording was made, this illumination is re-envisioned as a three-dimensional quasi-mandala, suggesting both the beauty and brilliance of the Palace of the Virtues (a place for contemplation and healing), and a battle ground for fighting the Devil. We play also with the refraction of light, and Hildegard’s use of colour in her imagery—for example, she describes a ‘wondrously bright light’ shining on Discretion’s breast, '… divided into many rays as is the splendour of the sun when it shines through an object’s many openings …'
In the course of the play, colour is in several key objects—the jewels on Humility’s crown and the red of Celestial Love’s flowers and Patience’s crown. The blue of Charity’s skin and tunic, the brilliant red of Faith’s necklace, and the purple of Discipline’s tunic are also enhanced with handheld colour filters and lighting washes.
Through these devices, and through transitions from utter darkness to brilliant light, audiences have experienced Ordo Virtutum immersed in Hildegard’s plainchant and imagery, with voices, sound, light, darkness, and colour conspiring to evoke the extraordinary richness of Hildegard’s visionary world.
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