How to Keep a Wave Upon the Sand?

Soprano Hana Blažková playing the Medieval harp at the July 27 concert

Soprano Hana Blažiková playing the Medieval harp at the July 27 concert

Describing the sound of Tiburtina Ensemble’s Medieval chants is like defining Maria from The Sound of Music.

How do you catch a cloud and pin it down? … How do you keep a wave upon the sand?

These lines from the song ″How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?″ from the hit musical and film describe the girl who meets her fate, starting in a Benedictine Monastery.

But it was at a different Benedictine Monastery, Emauzy in Prague, where the concert July 27, of music mostly by Benedictine abbess Hildegard von Bingen, echoed through the high ceiling’s ether. Held at the beautiful, restored Church of Our Lady of the Slavs (Kostel Panny Marie na Slovanech), the concert was part of the Summer Festivities of Early Music (Letní Slavnosti Staré Hudby) which concludes Aug 8.

Much more than simple Gregorian chant, Hildegard von Bingen’s Medieval music explodes with color, tone, and expression. That’s because she was one of the first composers to push the traditional chant beyond ″one syllable, one note″ and developed the melisma ornament – packing in a cascade of notes to one syllable. (Think of the difference between ″A- le- lu- iah″ and ″Aaaaa-leeeee-luuuuuu-iah.″)

We counted 15, 20, even 25 or more notes per syllable in some spots, although it was hard to actually keep track. According to the program notes, incredibly, Hildegard von Bingen connected up to 75 notes in one ornament.

The resulting sound is a meditation, an inspiration, a wave upon the sand, and, like sunlight glinting on silver water, reflects timeless serenity.

dulce melos

Austrian Margit Űbellacker on the dulce melos

Guest artist Margit Űbellacker’s dulce melos, the Medieval stringed instrument similar to a hammered dulcimer with two bridges, provided gently ringing introductions, interludes, solos, and full accompaniment throughout the concert.

Soprano and Tiburtina artistic director Barbora Kabátková conducted the ensemble and often joined soprano Hana Blažíková in playing the medieval harp.

The Tiburtina Ensemble demonstrated its mastery and versatility, presenting different combinations of voices – a cappella, full chorus, solos – with confidence and clarity. Styles ranged from the folk-song like ″On the Mountain a Flower is Discerned″ (Anonymous, early 13th century) to a Kyrie, Eleison (Hildegard von Bingen) to a Conductus, ″God, Pitying Man″ (Anonymous, early 12th century) with soprano, mezzo-soprano, and alto in haunting, almost dissonant harmonies.

For the audience that evening, it was a rare chance to appreciate the talents of the innovative female composer born nearly a thousand years ago, whose sound of music was brought to life by the capable and insightful Tiburtina Ensemble, in a sacred place originally founded by Charles IV, in 1347.

The Tiburtina Ensemble performing at the "Sibylla" concert July 27 at Emauzy

The Tiburtina Ensemble performing at the “Sibylla” concert July 27 at Emauzy

The final concerts in the Summer Festivities of Early Music are tonight at the Kostel Panny Marie Sněžné, 8:30 pm, and the performance of Calisto, a Baroque opera, at The State Opera Aug 6.

– Mary Matz, Opus Osm editor

Photo Credits: Summer Festivities of Early Music

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