Singing A Bridge Across Centuries At The Cloisters


By Anne E. Johnson

NEW YORK – Under the 12th-century painted wood crucifix that adorns the Fuentidueña Chapel at The Met Cloisters, musical innovation from two different eras came together on April 13. The vocal trio ModernMedieval does just what its name implies, deleting the space between new and old. The chants of Hildegard of Bingen provided a 12th-century framework for five 21st-century works.

Martha Cluver, founder Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, Eliza Bagg (

Artistic director and member Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek has the right background for both aspects of ModernMedieval’s mission. She used to sing with the renowned vocal group Anonymous 4, which brought worldwide attention not only to medieval chant in general, but also specifically to how it sounds when sung by women. And while Anonymous 4 started as a chant ensemble, it expanded into new music during its long run, which ended in 2015.

Horner-Kwiatek was in charge of commissioning new works for Anonymous 4. As she explained in an interview with Liquid Music, “after A4 stopped performing, it was a dream of mine to combine the two worlds in more tangible and deliberate ways, and the concept of ModernMedieval came about largely because of that.”

By 2016, Horner-Kwiatek and her two recruits from the contemporary ensemble Roomful of Teeth, Eliza Bagg and Martha Cluver, were ready to debut ModernMedieval at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They’ve been touring the Hildegard program, called “Words of Love and Wisdom,” during the 2018-19 season. Their concert at The Met Cloisters was part of the MetLiveArts series.

ModernMedieval sang works new and old at the Fuentidueña Chapel.

Like Anonymous 4, ModernMedieval sings chant with a regular but somewhat fluid rhythm. (Hildegard did not notate rhythm in her music, only pitch). It is widely agreed that Hildegard heard her compositions sung against a drone; in this performance, one or two singers sometimes sustained a textless pitch. Among A4’s contributions to the modern chant aesthetic was the employment of “authentic” techniques as devices of dramatic orchestration, so to speak. Following that tenet, ModernMedieval often brought in a drone partway through the chants to vary and intensify the sound.

All three singers were well suited to their tasks, singing with clear pitches and little vibrato. They opened with Hildegard’s lengthy O presul vere civitatis, displaying exact yet relaxed ensemble singing in this rich, complex chant. A special challenge of Hildegard is her tendency to push the melody up into the stratosphere in the second half of each chant. The trio made those vocal climbs without tension or loss of rhythmic suppleness. It was interesting to note the voiced initial s (summa pronounced zumma) and qu (quid pronounced kvid), a performance choice probably meant to acknowledge Hildegard’s German-region Latin.

ModernMedieval consistently proved itself to be equally comfortable and skilled with old and new music. All the new works were commissioned by ModernMedieval, with two co-commissioned by the Ecstatic Music Festival. The program interspersed the commissions between Hildegard chants, so comparisons were encouraged and inevitable.

Daniel Thomas Davis (Jack Liebeck)

The first contemporary piece was Daniel Thomas Davis’ Three-Winged Wisdom. In a program note, the composer explained that he was “prompted by the dizzyingly multi-layered creativity of this genre-defying polymath,” referring to Hildegard’s astonishing array of talents as composer, visionary, obstetrician, and political adviser, among other things. To that end, Davis wrote his piece in “layers,” a concept that manifested usually as a slower text against a faster one, with short, punctuated phrases against sustained notes. One specific nod to Hildegard’s style was a passage of extremely high notes.

Horner-Kwiatek wrote Meditation because she was “inspired by Hildegard’s vision of wisdom and love as embodiments of the Divine Feminine.” It was the closest of the new works to Hildegard’s own style, and was performed as a seamless outgrowth from the chant Virtus sapientia. The biggest difference was that Horner-Kwiatek emphasized dissonances rather than letting them occur accidentally against a drone, as happens in Hildegard.

Joel Philip Friedman (S. Maysonave)

Given the title All Things Are Set Ablaze, it seemed reasonable to expect Joel Philip Friedman’s contribution to sound angry or frightening, especially when he gave this context in the program: “I imagine a modern Hildegard von Bingen, rising up and returning to tell us ‘you have lost your way and face destruction.’” The text included some Hildegard verse, a few other “cautionary Latin fragments,” and Wagner’s war cry of the Valkyrie, “Hojotoho! Heiaha!” While it was certainly raucous and exciting – the trio played a tambourine, a small mallet-hit hand drum, and a triangle as they sang – the piece was far from furious. In fact, it was so much fun that Horner-Kwiatek’s final triangle ting earned a chuckle from the audience.

Caroline Shaw (Kait Moreno)

The most moving tribute to Hildegard came from Caroline Shaw, known for stretching the definition of vocal music to include surprising sounds. In Caritas habundat (Love abounds), performed immediately after Hildegard’s chant by that name, each syllable of the opening word began with a glottal groan, as if springing from the center of the earth, then blossomed into a tonal chord. Using only the first three lines of the chant’s text, Shaw repeats and deconstructs elements until they reach a celestial fervor.

With We Cannot Live, composer Caleb Burhans creates a roiling effect with closely staggered entrances at the unison, letting the voices split into harmony in the contrasting homorhythmic passages. The text is an excerpt from Elaine Bellezza’s article “Hildegard of Bingen, Warrior of Light” from the Fall 1991 issue of Gnosis. Unfortunately, it was not included in the printed libretto, leaving it mostly incomprehensible.

Caleb Burhans (Alice Teeple)

Still, the emotional impact of Burhans’ melodic writing was impressive: Just as the voices seemed to settle into a particular mode, the line moved out and up by an unexpected whole step. There was always a sense of rising.

The program’s final chant was one of Hildegard’s most important works, O Jerusalem, a tribute to the 8th-century Frankish bishop, St. Rupert. Hildegard’s text is a characteristic rainbow of poetic imagery, nothing like what you’ll find from the codified, official chants of the Middle Ages. One verse begins “Your windows, Jerusalem, are wondrously decorated with topaz and sapphire.” The women’s voices – sometimes in unison, sometimes split into melody and drone – conveyed the splendor and ecstasy of the words.

For those who miss the commitment and quality of Anonymous 4 in the realms of medieval and contemporary music, rest assured that ModernMedieval has taken up the tapestry without dropping a stitch. The tradition continues, to borrow Hildegard’s words, per exempla puri soni – through examples of pure sound.

Anne E. Johnson is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her arts journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Classical Voice North America, Chicago On the Aisle, and Copper: The Journal of Music and Audio. For many years she taught music history and theory in the Extension Division of Mannes School of Music.