TEMP's Mystic, Scientist, Scholar, Nun: Music of Hildegard von Bingen

The 12th century polymath's deep appreciation for creation came forth in a constant stream of praise that TEMP made uplifting

Illumination from the Liber Scivias showing Hildegard receiving a vision and dictating to her scribe and secretary

Before there was a Renaissance man – indeed, before there was a Renaissance – there was a woman whose talents and achievements spanned the arts, sciences, theology, philosophy, and linguistics. This 12th century Benedictine abbess was not only a polymath ahead of her time, she was also a visionary – very much in the literal sense: From the age of 3, Hildegard of Bingen experienced divine visions. In her later life – she lived to be 81 – these became the basis of her three major theological works, but whatever messages Hildegard received from the Almighty clearly fed her musical works as well. That much was evident in the recent Texas Early Music Project program devoted to her compositions. In them, we encountered living fountains of the clearest water, fragrances of virtues, angels of living light, and charity and mercy toward all, all of it through music of surpassing serenity. Where could it all have come from but on high?

Much of the "better world" revealed in the works performed in Mystic, Scientist, Scholar, Nun: Music of Hildegard von Bingen came from the composer's distinctive view of God's creation: a peaceable kingdom luxuriant with greenery and gardens, the air perfumed by flora, the water pure, beasts thriving side by side, and compassion everywhere – Eden before the Fall. But TEMP Artistic Director Daniel Johnson – who knows his way around Hildegard's music, having programmed it time and again during TEMP's 20 years – certainly contributed to the rare beauty of these visions. The chorus of women he assembled possess voices as pure and clear as the fountains that appear so often in Hildegard's texts. In solos, as when Meredith Ruduski sang "The Soul, joyful: O dulcis divinatis" from Hildegard's masterwork Ordo Virtutum, that purity of sound made it seem less voice than unfiltered expression of the spirit; Ruduski poured out an untainted aspiration for a heavenly afterlife. And when Jenifer Thyssen sang the opening lines of "O quam mirabilis est" while creating musical tones with a singing bowl, her voice matched those tones for clarity and richness. With each individual sounding so lush and clean, imagine when seven or nine or 14 of them combined voices in that mystically appealing form of chant from the Middle Ages. It was the musical equivalent of birds taking flight together, winging into the sky as one. That most of their singing was unaccompanied made it yet more transcendent. (And that's no slight to the instrumentalists for this concert; as is always the case with a TEMP concert, the period instruments complete the sense of atmosphere and mood, and the musicians are invariably expert.)

Johnson did fill in the program with a few ringers – works by composers working in the late 12th and 13th centuries – but this was, as advertised, Hildegard's show. It was her works that made the strongest impressions, through her singular experimentations with musical form and text, through her bright vision of creation, and the constant spirit of praise. Hildegard clearly loved the world and its maker, and her wide-ranging curiosity and study of both gave her a deeper appreciation of and gratitude for them than many of us will ever know. And in every piece of music, she is, in one way or another, expressing that, which made for a most uplifting concert.

Mystic, Scientist, Scholar, Nun: Music of Hildegard von Bingen

St. John’s United Methodist Church, 2140 Allandale
May 12

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Texas Early Music Project, TEMP, Daniel Johnson, Meredith Ruduski, Jenifer Thyssen

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