Tiburtina Ensemble delivers rich homage to Hildegard in NY debut

Mon May 08, 2023 at 12:36 pm
By Rick Perdian
The Tiburtina Ensemble performed Sunday at Corpus Christi Church in the Music Before 1800 series.

The Tiburtina Ensemble brought to a close the 48th season of Music Before 1800 with works of Hildegard von Bingen Sunday at Corpus Christi Church in Manhattan. 

Founded in Prague in 2008, the female vocal ensemble specializes in Gregorian chant, Medieval polyphony, and contemporary music. Its name was inspired by Tiburtina, the fourth-century prophetess to whom the Tiburtine Sibyl, an apocalyptic text predicting the triumph of the Christian Roman Empire, is attributed. 

The ensemble, which has performed widely in the Czech Republic and throughout Europe, made its New York City debut with this concert. For this concert, soprano Barbora Kabátková, the ensemble’s artistic director, was joined by sopranos Hana Blažíková and Tereza Böhmová and altos Kamila Mazalová and Anna Chadimová Havlíková. 

Unknown until the early music revival of the late-twentieth century, Hildegard von Bingen has the twin distinctions of being one of the most-recorded composers in recent decades as well as an actual saint. That her music has survived is remarkable enough, but that we know her name is even more extraordinary, as the identities of few composers from the High Middle Ages are known.

Hildegard’s works are monophonic, consisting of a single melodic line and are settings of her own texts. In introducing the concert, Kabátková made no claims to being a stylistic purist, as the voices would be accompanied by medieval harp, which was played by Blažíková. The instrument’s sound lent joy and buoyancy to the performance, but would have never been heard within a medieval church, where unaccompanied Gregorian chant reigned supreme. 

In this performance, Hildegard’s soaring melodies with their elaborate melismas bore almost no resemblance to traditional chant. Part of that is due undoubtedly to the fertility of Hildegard’s imagination, her ability to express herself in words and music, and the nonconformance streak inherent in such geniuses. The artistry of the five performers share much of the credit, however in creating a musical experience that was as enchanting, as it was engrossing.

The program included songs in praise of the Virgin Mary, the martyrs, and the prophets, but perhaps the most remarkable was “O Ecclesia.” A sequence hymn praising St. Ursula and her 11,000 virgin martyrs, Hildegard’s text is full of wondrous images—the church with eyes like sapphires, the Son of God as a dazzling young man awash in sunlight, a serpent whose throat is choked with pearls—which inspired her to compose equally extraordinary music. 

The singers gave voice to Hildegard’s words in a variety of styles and with a varied palette of musical colors. The image of clouds passing by in the purest air was captured in the lightness and luminosity with which they sang the word “sapphire.” In the final section, which relates the devil rushing in to destroy the virgins in all of their womanly grace, the dramatic urgency creating by the singers’ description of the scene was electrifying.

They also performed two pieces, “Marie qui gratium” and “Mundus a mundita” by anonymous composers of the Notre-Dame school, which was active at roughly the same time as Hildegarde. The difference in compositional style was immediately apparent, as well as the more prosaic texts, devoid of the Hildegard’s imaginative mysticism and spiritual fervor. To the latter, however, with its caustic description of the clergy as monster, the singers lent humor and a dance-like energy that veered towards the profane.

The final work on the program, “Hodie aperuit nobis,” an antiphon for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. The short text is full of imagery that depicts the exact moment that Jesus Christ entered the womb of his Mother. It was paired with Hildegard’s setting of Psalm 24, “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.” 

The antiphon, which was sung before and after the psalm, showed the composer at her most expressive and jubilant. The ornate melismas flowed in seemingly endless streams of melody from the singers. Seldom has seventy minutes of music passed by so quickly and given so much pleasure.

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