Music Review

Sequentia gives Hildegard a mystical voice

CAMBRIDGE — The subtitle of the program Benjamin Bagby’s Sequentia presented Saturday at St. Paul Church, under the auspices of the Boston Early Music Festival, was “Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179): Celestial Hierarchy” — as if there could be any doubt as to who the great mystical voice of medieval Germany was. The youngest of 10 children, Hildegard grew up to be a Benedictine nun and abbess, a mystic and migraine sufferer, a theologian, a philosopher, a cosmologist, a
poet, a playwright, a composer, an artist, a naturalist, and healer — and a feminist. She was ahead of her time, and so was Sequentia when, in 1982, the then Cologne-based outfit (it has since relocated to Paris) recorded her morality play “Ordo virtutum.” The group has now released all of her music on eight CDs.

There were two anonymous works on the intermissionless 90-minute program, and two of Hildegard’s instrumental pieces; the remainder was drawn from Sequentia’s most recent Hildegard CD, “Celestial Hierarchy,” antiphons and responsories addressed to saints and angels. Sequentia brought to St. Paul virtually the same lineup that’s on the CD: seven women vocalists backed by Bagby’s harp and Norbert Rodenkirchen’s flute.

Ideas as to what Hildegard’s compositions sounded like in her own lifetime vary considerably. Sequentia steers a middle path, less worldly than Marcel Pérès’s Ensemble Organum, not as stratospherically brilliant (or wearing on the ear) as Anonymous 4. At St. Paul, text and music exploded in equal measure, with startling lines like “fountain leaping from the heart of the Father” underlined by soaring melismas and a chromatic way with modal scales. The vocalists were rhapsodic, enunciating words, shaping phrases, and bringing out meanings; that fountain, in “O splendidissima gemma,” spurted and splashed. “O dulcis electe” was sweet, befitting its title; “O cohors militiae floris” was a militant salute to the Apostles as the “cohort of the army of the flower of the branch unthorned.” When the voices did go stratospheric, they remained full-bodied.


Sequentia’s Hildegard recordings back the singers with fiddle, positive organ, flute, harp, and hurdy-gurdy. That accompaniment is sparer now than it used to be, as the group has moved toward emphasizing the liturgical character of her work; most of the selections were performed a cappella. Hildegard herself spoke highly of flutes and harps, and Bagby’s harp was a model of quiet support for Lena Susanne Norin in “O victoriosissimi triumphatores,” but Rodenkirchen’s flute seemed too far forward and ill suited to the timbre of Lydia Heather Knutson’s voice in “O speculum columbae.” He blended in better on the closing “O vos angeli,” which popped like the last volley of fireworks over the Esplanade on the Fourth of July. The audience had been asked not to applaud until the concert was over — at which time it erupted in fireworks of its own.

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at