How 900 year old Medieval chant teaches you to kick butt

This past weekend I wrapped up an amazing project - a production of Hildegard von Bingen's Ordo Virtutum with Ensemble Musica Humana.

Hildegard von Bingen was a nun who lived 1098-1179.  She was a scientist, philosopher, political figure, and all sorts of things that women weren't really allowed to be, and she had crazy visions and composed music based on her visions.  She also is responsible for writing the Ordo Virtutum - a musical morality play (a play that tells a story with a moral, like Aesop's fables).

The Ordo Virtutum is the story of the journey of the soul ("Anima") and the battle between the Virtues and the Devil over the final destination of the soul.  In the original version, there are 17 virtues (all sung by women), a chorus of men representing the Patriarchs and Prophets, a chorus of women representing other souls, and the Devil (a spoken male role).  In the version I just did, we had a women's chorus of "Souls", a "Patriarch", a "Prophet", a "Devil", 4 Virtues ("Humility, Chastity, Knowledge/Wisdom of God, Victory") and of course, "Anima" - the soul.  What makes the Ordo unique is that it is the earliest morality play (by at least a century), and it's the only Medieval music drama for which we know who wrote the music AND the words.  Basically, it's really cool (in a nerdy sort of way).

The Story?
Here's the easy version...  The Virtues show up and announce that they've arrived.  The Patriarch and Prophet give them all high fives.  The Souls wander in, lost as usual.  Anima starts to realize that life kinda sucks.  The Devil tempts Anima, somewhat successfully.  The Virtues get frustrated when Anima gives in to the Devil.  Then Anima comes back to the Virtues, admitting that she blew it and asking for help.  The Virtues give Anima a serious pep talk.  Anima finally stands up for herself and tells the Devil she's not into him anymore.  Then (finally) Humility (she's in charge) tells Victory (the hit (wo)man) that she can go kick the Devil's butt.  The Devil is bound and everyone (led by Victory and Knowledge of God) rejoices.  Then Chastity and the Devil get into a spat, which Chastity wins.  Because Jesus was born of a virgin.  Make sense?

Enough background - on to the action... of memorizing!
Even with the shortened cast of characters (which also meant a shortened play), it was an hour long production.  Of chant.  Memorized.  So... how do you memorize chant?  Slowly.  Usually when you set out to memorize something (as a singer), the accompanying music helps cue you on what comes next.  Such is not the case with chant.  There isn't necessarily accompanying music (more on that in a minute).  So... relying on the music is not an option.  Next = words!  When you don't have music to memorize, you have to memorize the words.  Like a monologue.  Except in Latin.  So, I made flash cards.  I transcribed the 19 different chants I had to learn, cut them up, and started working through them.  In order to make sure I learned them in the right order, I practiced singing them in order.  Even if I would work on them out of order, I always ended my practice sessions by singing the whole thing, in order.  Then I realized that I had to know which character and which line immediately preceded my responses.  So I wrote the character's name and final 3 words on the back of each piece of chant.  It was a good system!  If I ever have to memorize an hour of chant again, there's the system!

Uh...on to the REAL action!
Rehearsals started on March 17th.  We had 6 rehearsals (4 hours each), plus two dress rehearsals (4 hours each), and 3 performances.  It was an amazing amount of work to get done in a small amount of time, but it really came together!  Everyone came prepared with their chant all learned and partly memorized (full memorization was the goal, but it was just too much for all of us).  We had a fantastic leadership team who gave us just the right amount of direction and free license with our characters.  We even got to dance!  And amazingly, after all those hours of rehearsal and repeating little bits of chant over and over and over and over again, it all came together!

That's nice.  Why is "Victory" a "virtue"?
Some of Hildegard's "virtues" make total sense.  Humility, Discretion, Chastity, Hope, Patience, Obedience, Faith, Heavenly Love... yeah, all of those "Virtues" can easily be viewed as "virtues".  Those are reasonable character qualities for someone to want to develop.  Some of the other ones make a little less sense.  Contempt of the World, Fear of God, Knowledge/Wisdom of God... yeah.  I can kinda get it, but it's not so obvious.  And then there is Victory.  As far as I can tell, Victory exists in the Ordo for one purpose - to step in as a "military" leader and conquer the Devil.  She doesn't say much, though when she does it's awesome, high, and pretty much can bring the whole thing to a halt.  She also doesn't get to act on her own.  She doesn't get to decide when it's time to conquer the Devil.  Humility has to tell her when it's time.  So basically, she functions as Humility's hit (wo)man.  And in that context, it all makes sense.  Victory is the "virtue" of conquering.  Of not being afraid and of taking charge of what needs to happen.  Victory is the "virtue" of kicking butt in the proper time and context.  Victory isn't warm and fuzzy.  She won't hug you and tell you it's ok.  She won't even tell you to stop being dumb with your stupid boyfriend (that's Knowledge/Wisdom of God's job).  Victory just waits until everyone has had enough and then goes and beats him up.  Victory doesn't rationalize or explain.  She just does what needs to be done.  She throws it down.  She gets the last word.  She's dangerous.  And as one of the directors mentioned to me, she may still be covered in gore and hasn't wiped her sword off yet.  Yeah... she kicks butt.  As awesome as Victory is, that's something that can be hard to display on stage.  She doesn't say much.  It's all in her attitude.  The most hilarious part, and yet probably also the most helpful part of Victory's journey came when someone (Matt) was watching me get ready for a dress rehearsal and started quoting Cool Runnings to me.  (If you haven't watched Cool Runnings, do it.  It's worth it.)  "I see pride!  I see power!  I see a bada-- mother who don't take no crap off nobody!"  I don't know if any description can sum Victory up quite as well.  "No crap off nobody."  Yup.  Pretty much.

So why care about a medieval music drama?
Well, on a purely nerdy level, it's a really cool thing that it still exists and it's very seldom performed. And Hildegard is awesome and so is her music.  Also, the production was really well done.  The singers were amazing and the instrumentalists... oh the instrumentalists!  There is no written accompaniment for the Ordo Virtutum.  Just the lines of chant for the singers and dialogue for the Devil.  So, the amazing instrumentalists improvised the whole thing.  It's modal, so they just played things in the same mode as the chant lines and it all worked out.  I make it sound way simpler than it actually was.  They deserve a ton of credit for bringing the whole thing together and creating a sound world that made the singers' job SO much easier.  The directing/staging/costuming/alltheotherstuff was so good and made for a really awesome production.

It's still an hour of chant that's 900 years old.
Well yes.  You can't really pretend it's anything else.  But 900 years isn't really that long when you consider how relevant the material is.  Yes, it's a morality play steeped in Catholic imagery.  Hildegard was a nun, so duh. 

But think about the action... 
Anima makes dumb choices.  We all make dumb choices.
The Souls are generally confused. We've all been generally confused.
Anima finally decides to start making good choices but discovers that it's hard.  We've all been there too.
Anima stands up to the Devil but realizes she can't do it on her own and asks for help.  This is such a good lesson to all of us.  We all need help from time to time.

And as far as the Virtues go...
The virtues can talk to the soul, but she makes her own choices. 
They can't act until she asks for help.  That's kind of like life too.  You can't help someone who doesn't want to be helped.  You can't change someone who doesn't want to change.
But as Victory taught us, when it's time to move, MOVE.  Don't hesitate.  Just throw it down. 

Don't take no crap off nobody.

And that's a lesson that still applies to all of us, 900 years later.