Arts: Proms: A medieval smash hit

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The Independent Culture
HILDEGARD OF BINGEN - 12th-century abbess, composer, poet, mystic, prophet and correspondent of popes, kings and archbishops - has also become a peculiarly 20th-century phenomenon.

The Hyperion recording that launched the modern interest in her work in 1982 has sold 280,000 copies, an astonishing number for any classical record, let alone one of sparsely accompanied mediaeval hymns. Hildegard's achievement was so vast, and so unlikely, that she can be whatever you want her to be: feminist icon, new-age musician, the first individualist - just fill in your own enthusiasm.

So it is hardly surprising that Hildegard is also good box office and she managed to draw a sizeable crowd to the Albert Hall for the late- night Prom by the early-music group Sequentia of her Ordo Virtutum, "The Play of the Virtues", with which Sequentia is touring to celebrate the 900th anniversary of Hildegard's birth.

The Ordo Virtutum is a religious allegory set to music, a sort of proto- opera which presents the struggle of a wavering soul to reach heaven. The Virtues (Humility, Obedience, Chastity, Charity and so on) gather to help the soul overcome the temptations of the devil, who ends up bound, and crushed underfoot.

Words and music were presented in the barest fashion, though using (as many of these late-night Proms have done) the huge space of the Albert Hall to add a dramatic edge to the proceedings.

In this instance the Soul, symbolising the journey she had to undertake, wandered from the stage into the promming area, where the Devil, arising from the darkened stalls in a black cowl, came to sweep her away. The Devil's next sarcastic interjections were delivered from a first-tier box, his form barely visible in the gloom but his spoken words, drily delivered, cutting through the silence and contrasting effectively with the elegant melismata of the voices on stage.

Otherwise, there is not much drama in Hildegard's ambitious text. The Proms prospectus promised a Devil who "speaks, grunts and makes gross noises"; in the event, he was rather well behaved. Indeed, to have hammed the part any more would have sat ill with the austerity of the music. Although polyphonic singing was beginning to emerge elsewhere in Hildegard's time, she preferred to stick with the expressive, single-line chant melodies of the tradition in which she grew up, in the Rhineland around Cologne - and the Ordo Virtutum consists of little else.

Sequentia provided some textual variety, supplementing those devilish interjections through occasional instrumental interludes for the richer sounds of three medieval fiddles and flute.

The Virtues - 18 singing parts for the 18 nuns in Hildegard's own convent - were taken by the nine female voices of Sequentia, all draped in long white robes, dignified and calm. The four instrumentalists, also costumed, moved in from the wings and off again in slow processional. But it was the unemphatic fascination of Hildegard's long, swooping chants that held the attention.