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Taking a chance on chant

Attempting to memorize a 12th century morality play's Latin lyrics and random rhythms seemed positively medieval. But then that was the point.

August 10, 2008|Chloe Veltman | Special to The Times

SAN FRANCISCO — IF YOU'VE ever struggled to learn a poem or piece of music by heart, you may have been abashed at the effort required. But consider how much worse you would have felt in medieval Europe.

"Medieval people reserved their awe for memory," New York University professor Mary Carruthers writes in "The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture." "Their greatest geniuses they describe as people of superior memories, they boast unashamedly of their prowess in that faculty, and they regard it as a mark of superior moral character as well as intellect."

What's more, the scarcity of books in the Middle Ages meant that the vast majority of information was exchanged aurally -- and that included musical knowledge. "Learning by ear was the only way music was absorbed, since manuscripts were never used as scores in the sense that we understand," says Benjamin Bagby, director of the Paris-based early music ensemble Sequentia.

A millennium later, such feats of recall can seem well nigh miraculous, or so I've concluded this summer. As a member of the a cappella group the San Francisco Renaissance Voices, I've spent more hours than I care to count learning and memorizing the part of the Soul in "Ordo Virtutum" (Order of the Virtues), a musical morality play composed around 1150 by the visionary German abbess, scientist, poet, musician and mystic Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179).

Hildegard's composition, which our group is presenting in a series of concerts this month, may have topped the monastic Billboard charts back in the 12th century. But to a classically trained singer weaned on Mozart, Morrissey and Madonna (in other words, music in recognizable keys, with hummable melodies and conventional time signatures), this archaic "opera" concerning the Soul's journey from temptation to salvation initially seemed to be the opposite of catchy.

The mere prospect of getting the random, meandering sequences of notes and impenetrable Latin lyrics down was daunting enough. But committing the stuff to memory, as our music director, Todd Jolly, had instructed us to do to create a freer interpretation, seemed about as likely as the composer's strapping on her wimple and putting in an appearance on our opening night.

First there was the issue of language. Although many singers in the U.S. are familiar with pronouncing standard church Latin, the medieval German that Hildegard used followed different rules. It took weeks for us to substitute the "kwids" and "kwods" that had been hard-wired into our brains from singing innumerable masses by Tallis and Byrd for more Germanic-sounding "kvids" and "kvods."

Remembering to pronounce an S at the start of a word as a Z was similarly tough. And I'm still confused by I. Sometimes it's pronounced "ih" and other times "ee," and remembering what sound to make when has been an ongoing struggle.

Then there was the problem of deciphering the musical notation. Scriveners in Hildegard's monastery wrote down the music and lyrics for "Ordo" shortly after her death. But even though the text features neumes -- basic marks dictating pitch -- and is peppered with unfamiliar flourishes denoting such things as trills and de-emphasized notes, it lacks most conventional modern markings, such as time signatures, note values and even bar lines. In this way, the composer leaves ample room for artistic license -- a scary prospect for musicians who don't regularly improvise.

Our early rehearsals were a dispiriting struggle to reach a consensus on the ebb and flow of Hildegard's melodies. We'd all start singing together in perfect monophony, but within a few phrases, the delicate thread of her plainchant would invariably snap. Attempting to memorize phrases as a group caused further chaos. On more than one occasion, we diligently broke chants into bite-sized chunks and worked on them intensively, only to find, by the end of the rehearsal, that we could barely recall a note.

Given the huge advances in printing technology since Hildegard's day and that most of us don't feel any strong moral or intellectual obligation to develop our memorization skills, why bother learning "Ordo" by heart at all? I can certainly think of better ways to spend my time than slavishly repeating dozens of chants in the hope that they might stick. Yet once I'd gotten over feeling intimidated by the sheer size of the undertaking, Hildegard's music and the memorization process started to make sense. Patterns began to emerge, and the music started to feel less like one of Arnold Schoenberg's 12-tone compositions and more like part of me.

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