HILDEGARD VON BINGEN: ORDO VIRTUTUM / ECM New Series 2219
Dietburg Spohr’s Ensemble Belcanto was last heard on ECM in 2001 singing contemporary composition by Wolfgang Rihm, Konrad Boehmer, Fabrizio Casti, and Haim Alexander (see “Come un’ombra di luna”, ECM New Series 1739). For more than a quarter-century, Belcanto has been a force in new music, and many composers have written music for the ensemble. But the Frankfurt-based group’s repertoire has also embraced older musical expressions, and Spohr has often drawn attention to affinities between early music and the avant-garde.
With Hildegard von Bingen’s “Ordo Virtutum”, written around 1150, Belcanto reaches back to the beginnings of extended-form composition in the Western world. This is sacred music reflecting Medieval thought, as music and morality play are intertwined.
In “Ordo Virtutum”, as Gerhard R. Koch explains in a liner note, “a spiritual struggle is presented which strays far from the liturgical model. The soul – erring, doubting, hoping – travels its way along the constantly contested path of faith, stumbling into a kind of ‘psychodrama.’ It receives counsel from the comforting, guiding ‘Virtues’ (allegorical creatures of divine providence), from ‘characters’ who scrutinise everything, and from the Devil himself. The text has a virtually antagonistic character, pointing toward imaginary sacred theatre.”
Historical ‘objectivity’ is not the goal of Belcanto’s creative interpretation, which is “based on respect and the faithful handling of the auratic composer and her presumed intentions. Precisely because her world is so distant and foreign, one must refrain from enfolding it in emotive sonic incense or from making it ironical. Experience with new vocal music is applied in this version, as is the endeavour to impart the Middle Ages – a kind of balancing act between the modern and the archaic which, in any event, does more justice to the work than a beautified halo. Dietburg Spohr activates the potential for contrast in Ordo in her arrangement, as if an imaginary Medieval composer had composed for a ‘bel canto’ ensemble.”
Spohr and the Belcanto Enemble have been performing music of Hildegard von Bingen since the early 1990s, determined to honour Hildegard as a composer with material relevant for our time and to free her, periodically, from the ‘esoteric’ corner which has claimed her. The ensemble views Hildegard’s compositions as a joyously experimental bridge between the Middle Ages and contemporary music.
Hildegard von Bingen was born in 1098 in Bermersheim, near Mainz. She took her vows as a Benedictine nun in 1112, and founded her own convent in Rupertsberg in 1150. Her writings are widely held to be divinely-inspired; she was officially recognised as both a Saint and a Doctor of the Universal Church by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. In accounts of her life and work it is difficult to sift fact from legend. Conflicting claims have been made for the originality of her music. Where the Catholic World Report has hailed her as “a mystical genius who pushed beyond the boundaries of the musical conventions of her own time, musicologists have argued that while Hildegard is an individualistic composer she is still creating within the context of 12th-century liturgical practice and melodic structure.
Ensemble Belcanto was formed in 1986 by mezzo-soprano Dietburg Spohr, then a member of Clytus Gottwald’s “Schola Cantorum” in Stuttgart, drawing on her experiences in improvisation as well as choral music, classical singing and new music performance. The group has been committed to adventurous programming from the outset. Details of its history, repertoire and performances, as well as biographies of the singers can be found on the ensemble’s web site