Harmony of the Spheres in tandem with life on earth – Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) from Baroque Voices and instrumentalists

Loemis presents:
A Winter Solstice Offering in Medieval Song and Dance

Harmony of the Spheres
The music of Abbess Hildegard von Bingen

Baroque Voices, directed by Pepe Becker
Pepe Becker, Jane McKinlay, Virginia Warbrick, Milla Dickens, Andrea Cochrane, Alexandra Granville, Toby Gee
Instrumental Ensemble
Warren Warbrick (nga taonga puoro), Pepe Becker (shruti-box), Gregory Squire (medieval fiddle), Robert Oliver (rebec) Laurence Reece (drums, bells, shruti-box)

Hall of Memories, National War Memorial
Buckle St., Mt Cook, Wellington

Sunday 17th June 2018

More of a spiritual/aesthetic experience than merely a “concert” was Baroque Voices’ evocative and atmospheric presentation “Harmony of the Spheres”, triumphantly bringing together singers, instrumentalists and audience to share and delight in the joys of exploration, wonderment and celebration wrought by the music of the twelfth-century Abbess Hildegard of Bingen. No more ambient and timeless sounds than those of Hildegard’s music intermingled with both contemporaneous dance rhythms and the haunting strains of a taonga puoro instrument could have been conceived – and no better venue for such a venture in the capital could have been chosen than the Hall of Memories at the National War Memorial in Mt.Cook’s Buckle St., beneath the Carillon.

Added to this for we listeners was the sense of participation in a living form of ritual – we were encircled by the musicians, the seated instrumentalists in front, and the singers standing at the sides around the auditorium, the latter moving one position clockwise in between each of the sequences and chants, and in doing so enclosing us in a diaphanous web of vocal sounds, almost as if we were part of the choir itself. Of course the nature of such isolated voice-placements resulted in the unison lines acquiring for a number of reasons more of a soft-focused communal roundness throughout, instead of the ensemble’s usual sharply-etched homogeneity of sound. It seemed almost as if we were privy to worship carried out by an actual community of nuns and novices, as bent on connecting with the spiritually expressive content of the words they sang, as concerning themselves with a certain quality of sound.

I had previously heard Hildegard’s work performed in concert, occasionally by Baroque Voices themselves, though invariably in tandem with the work of other composers. Having her music presented with the kind of focus and historical context provided here couldn’t help but make a profound impression on anybody’s sensibilities, a feeling of tapping into some kind of transcendental creative force that simply couldn’t be denied or thwarted by earthly impediments – a notion which was afterwards reinforced by my reading Pepe Becker’s informative programme-notes, which included a brief biography of the composer, of the kind that makes one realise how puny one’s own achievements in life really are!

Included also in the printed programme (which I didn’t get to read until after the concert!) were translations of the original Latin texts of the Hymns, which were also written by Hildegard! What Pepe Becker calls her “expressive and rapturous” imagery in places predates that of the English metaphysical poets writing five hundred years later, in terms of physical and erotic imagery – the Antiphon “Hodie Aparuit”, for example, which speaks of the Virgin’s womb opening only for the Son of God – “from it gleams within the dawn the Virgin Mary’s flower”. The body for Hildegard is at once the holiest and most responsive of sanctuaries, as these words in praise of the third-century Saint Eucharius’s holiness show – “In your mouth Ecclesia (a female personification of the Church) savours the old and the new wine which is the potion of holiness”. There’s an exhilarating freedom about such use of imagery  – “from your womb, O dawn, has come the sun anew!” – which disarms with its wholeheartedness and candour.

Complementing the vocal performances were the efforts of the instrumentalists whose distinctive tones played their part in evoking the presentation’s duality of medieval ambience and timelessness. An extra dimension of place was wrought by taonga puoro player Warren Warbrick’s plaintive bird-like realisations on the pūtōrino, whose sounds began the presentation proper, then alternated utterances with the voice of Pepe Becker in “O Ignis Spiritus”, and the vocal ensemble in “O Euchari”. Both vocal and pūtōrino timbres drew from one another a common sense of something spiritual and extra-terrestrial, a girdle of sounds whose combination seemed to readily encompass the entirety of the globe.

Earthiness of a different order pervaded the contribution of the remaining instrumentalists, a quality readily conceded by the excellent violinist Gregory Squire, in his note about the presentation’s instruments-only contributions – he remarks that while song was a “constant” in the church, “dance was, more often than not, the preserve of the illiterate rabble”. As well as contributing these sequences the instrumentalists also provided discreet accompaniments to some of the singing, usually in the form of “drone-like” pedal notes from the string instruments, or occasional bell-chimes, with the aforementioned pūtōrino making its voice heard occasionally. There was also a kind of “squeeze-box” called a shruti-box whose delicate whisperings  nevertheless created telling ambiences.

But it was the dance music which made the most enduring impression, the players seemingly drawing from the earth itself the necessary energies and articulations that made this vigorous music “speak”. We heard quick music whose sequences were called Trotto (Latin – trottare – to trot) and Ghaetta (an Italian city’s name, and also Spanish for bagpipes), as well as a more extended sequence called “Lamento di Tristano”, a musical representation of the search for the Holy Grail, which contained various narrative references in the form of different tempi and moods for different parts of the piece. Both Robert Oliver (rebec) and Laurence Reese (drums, bells) hove to with a will in tandem with their violinist, generating as lively and visceral a response in the energetic sequences as, were, in contrast, their contributions to the slower pieces delicate and thoughtful.

Altogether we were transported by the sounds and their realisations to a time and place in keeping with a more natural order of things, our sensibilities delighting in the juxtapositioning of the sacred and profane, and marvelling at the ease and flow of co-existence between the two. It was part of the genius of Pepe Becker and her collaborators that such disparate elements as the creative genius of Hildegard of Bingen, popular medieval dance music and timelessly ambient sounds from Aotearoa were brought together with such memorable and resounding effect.